Gallaudet President I. King Jordan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation

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i. KING JORDAN, OUTGOING gallaudet university PRESIDENT,


Washington, D.C.; November 29, 2006 – I. King Jordan, outgoing president of Gallaudet University, the world’s only university dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing students, joined Neal Conan today for an exclusive interview on NPR News Talk of the Nation.

In his first interview since the protests that locked down the school’s campus for nearly one month, Dr. Jordan took callers’ questions and discussed the controversy over his appointed successor that led to these protests, his legacy as the first deaf president of the institution and the issues facing the deaf community today including technological advancements such as cochlear implants and digital hearing aids.

Real-time live captioning was made available to the deaf and hard of hearing community during the live broadcast today through, where the complete audio and transcript are also available.

The transcript of the interview is also below. Excerpts must be credited to NPR News Talk of the Nation.

Talk of the Nation is NPR’s midday news talk program that explores all topics from politics to pop culture, education, religion, books, health, family and music. Through call-ins and e-mails, listeners are able to join in dialogue with decision-makers, authors, academicians, artists and newsmakers in the headlines. Neal Conan has been host of Talk of the Nation since 2001. With 2.8 million weekly listeners, the program airs on 276 NPR stations around the country; for local stations and time periods, check


NEAL CONAN (HOST): Earlier this fall, student protesters closed down Gallaudet University, the leading institution of deaf education. Board member Harvey Goodstein speaks through an interpreter.

TAPE: It’s hurt, everybody is hurting. The board members are hurt, students are hurting… faculty and staff are hurting.

TAPE: Gallaudet University is more than a university, it’s a culture center.

So we need a leader for both the university and the cultural center, so that’s what we’re going to get.

CONAN: That was graduate student Jim Patrusik. This time, I. King Jordan speaks about what’s happening and why.

CONAN: This is “Talk of the Nation.” I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Last month, we scheduled an exit interview with I. King Jordan, the outgoing president of Gallaudet University. He was unable to join us due to a crisis on the Gallaudet campus. A protest over the choice of his successor escalated so far that angry students blocked the gates of the school and effectively shut it down. After three weeks of demonstrations that included arrests, hunger strikes and two takeovers of campus buildings, the school’s board of trustees backed down.

TAPE: Yes! To the Gallaudet heroes! And thank you to the board! Let the healing begin, please! Let the healing begin!

CONAN: President Jordan is with us today to speak publicly for the first time since his campus was so bitterly divided. 18 years ago, his own appointment as president followed a series of protests as an earlier generation of students demanded a deaf president now. As that first deaf president, I. King Jordan led Gallaudet from college to university and dramatically increased the school’s endowment, and he won recognition as a kind of ambassador from the deaf community. As you’ll hear, he also has his critics.

Today, we’ll talk about the protests, his tenure as president, and the very real issues facing deaf students and Gallaudet University. If you have questions for I. King Jordan or about the future of Gallaudet and deaf education, please join the conversation. We’re providing real-time captioning of this program at our web site. For more information on the captioning go to “Deaf culture” is all one word. Our telephone number is 800-989-8255, and our e-mail address is [email protected]

Brad Lee is interpreting my words for Mr. Jordan, who speaks for himself. And President Jordan thanks for being with us today.

I. KING JORDAN: Thank you, Neal. I’m delighted to be here. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to have a chance to talk about Gallaudet University, and you may not know this, but I’m celebrating my 40th anniversary at Gallaudet. I first set foot on the campus as a freshman in the fall of 1966. So I’ve been part of the Gallaudet community for a long, long time, and I’m eager for a chance to talk about what Gallaudet’s all about.

Thank you.

CONAN: We have to begin by asking you about the crisis that ended – I guess just about a month ago. I wonder how you’re feeling about it now that you’ve had a chance to get a couple deep breaths and get perspective on it.

JORDAN: I’m glad that it’s over. I’m glad that we’re now focusing our energies on paying attention to the good strategic plan that we’ve developed and focusing our energies on the future of Gallaudet University and the future of deaf Ed.

CONAN: In your mind, what was this protest all about?

JORDAN: It’s hard for me to say what the protest was about because the issue seems to keep changing. The target, if you will, for the protest was changing all the time. It seemed to be against something instead of a protest for a reason or a cause. It was against an individual, and that’s why it was so divisive.

CONAN: The individual was Jane Fernandes, who was nominated to be the next president of Gallaudet University. And one of the complaints that the students had– some of the protesters– was that, in fact, she seemingly was groomed by you to be your successor and that the process of selecting a president wasn’t truly open, that all candidates weren’t listened to with equal weight.

JORDAN: I would disagree with that. I think that the process was very open, inclusive, and fair. To use the phrase that she was groomed by me, I’m very proud that I was her mentor. She was an outstanding prospect and she was very highly qualified to be a president. I regret she wasn’t given the chance.

CONAN: Have you spoken with her in the past month?

JORDAN: Oh, several times; several times. She’s fine. She’s doing very well. She’s a very strong individual. Anyone who follows the protests and who followed the personal attacks and know about those things knows that she must be a very strong person.

CONAN: The protests took on… at some point they were about procedure, they were about issues, but they also took on issues of personality and they became very personal.

She was denounced, you were denounced. That can’t be something pleasant after 40 years at one institution.

JORDAN: Well, it’s not a pleasant thing, but I’m sure you know that in a protest people will do anything to achieve the ends that they want. And I’m past that; I’m not paying attention now to the personal attacks anymore. I’m not paying any attention.

CONAN: As far as you’re concerned, this was not about you?

JORDAN: I don’t think it was about me, no. I’m very sure that it was not about me.

CONAN: In retrospect, would you have done things differently?

JORDAN: Well, it’s hard to talk about the protests and about what happened, because what’s over is over. I would much rather talk about what I will do and what the university will do and how we’re really well positioned to talk about the future of Gallaudet and the future of deaf education.

CONAN: And Miss Fernandes, in her defense, said she thought in a sense this demonstration and protest were at least in part about a feeling that she was not deaf enough. Was that a part of these protests, do you think?

JORDAN: That issue arose and that issue was talked about, but I don’t think it was Dr. Fernandes who raised the issue. I think that was first raised by students on the very day that her appointment was announced. And it’s unfortunate that that issue became so divisive.

CONAN: Was it a surprise to you after your presidency was borne in protest that there would be protests at the end of your presidency?

JORDAN: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard me talk about 1988 and talk about what happened in 1988, but, honestly, while that began as a student protest, it very quickly became a social movement and I don’t think of it as a protest. It was very unifying. It was about a cause. I was the first deaf person to become president of a university that was 124 years old. 124 years and there had never been a deaf person. So everybody came together to support something. It was for something. And this recent protest was really against something.

CONAN: Let’s see if we can get some callers in on this conference. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. We’ll begin with Michelle, Michelle calling us from Rockville, in Maryland.

CALLER: Yes, hi. First, I’d like to thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CALLER: It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to ask President Jordan. I’m a sign language interpreter in Rockville, and I had been told by many deaf individuals that it was the changes Miss Fernandes is making at the university, where many students were lost from Kendall School, many deaf students had to leave Kendall School or Maryland Secondary School and actually go to the Maryland School for the Deaf. And she didn’t care about that and she was implementing other changes as well as when she addressed the students at Gallaudet she herself didn’t sign. Instead, she used a sign language interpreter. And is this all true? I’ll take the call off the air.

JORDAN: I’m very glad to have your call and I’m glad to hear this.

CONAN: And thank you, Michelle.

JORDAN: I’m sorry for interrupting you. But I can tell you for sure that Dr. Fernandes never used a sign language interpreter. See, the blogs and the postings on the web sites all over the place talked about the fact that she didn’t learn to sign until she was 23 years old, and that’s true. But she became a very fluent signer, a very capable signer, and a very strong advocate for sign language and American Sign Language specifically. So to suggest that she used the sign language interpreter, that’s absolutely false. I can guarantee that never happened.

CONAN: And why would that be of such symbolic importance to students at Gallaudet, to the deaf community?

JORDAN: Oh, the whole issue about Gallaudet, why Gallaudet exists and why Gallaudet is so important is communication access. At Gallaudet, everybody signs. At Gallaudet, all communication is visual. Everything that’s communicated is communicated in the air.

So to have someone who’s a leader who isn’t able to sign would not be a very positive thing. But, as I said, Dr. Fernandes is a very fluent signer.

CONAN: One of the issues that was also raised by your critics and hers was the issue of academic standards at Gallaudet University, the feeling that to keep the enrollment up that the people who were not qualified to get in were being allowed in to Gallaudet, and that graduation rates continued to hover below the targets of achievement that Gallaudet set for itself.

JORDAN: The academic standards at Gallaudet… I’m happy to talk about our strategic plan for the future, but I’m also happy to talk about currently. Academic standards are rigorous, and especially graduation standards are rigorous. We admit students who will be challenged to complete the program. But those who complete the program, for example, more than half of the people who graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet will go on to earn an advanced degree. And that’s about twice the national average. So the value of an education at Gallaudet is really unquestioned. And the fact that so many people go to graduate school, other graduate schools is testament to the quality of the Gallaudet education.

CONAN: Here’s a quote from the “Washington Post” from a faculty chair, Mark Weinberg. “The unstated fear among many facts you will cite that Gallaudet constitution is so desperate for warm bodies that they’ll yank people off the street who don’t have the skills or are not ready for college experience.”

JORDAN: I regret that appeared in the newspaper. That’s just wrong. Student that are accepted at Gallaudet have the potential to succeed.

CONAN: Have the potential to succeed. The other question, then, is the graduation rate.

You talked about 40% graduation rate. At most institutions that’s apparently done over a six-year period. You calculated it differently at Gallaudet, as I understand.

JORDAN: The graduation rate at Gallaudet is not what we would like for it to be. We want the graduation rate to improve. But it’s really important to note that people who graduate from Gallaudet don’t still get great benefits from the university experience. As I said, those who do graduate know it changes their lives. They get good jobs, they get high-paying jobs, they get advanced degrees, and they become leaders.

CONAN: We’re going to take a short break and encourage more of your calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail is [email protected] Our guest is I. King Jordan, the outgoing president of Gallaudet. When we get back, we’ll focus more on the future of deaf education and Gallaudet University.

CONAN: I’m Neal Conan in Washington. On tomorrow’s program, Murray Horowitz returns with some of the best holiday movies of all-time. You recollect e-mail us with your holiday favorites, Christmas, Chanukah, any holiday film. The address is [email protected] Tomorrow, join us on “Talk of the Nation.” Today, we’re talking about the challenges that lie ahead for deaf education and Gallaudet University, the country’s premier school for the deaf. Our guest for the hour is I. King Jordan. He’s currently president at Gallaudet and is planning to retire at the end of this year.

This is the first time he’s speaking publicly since the uproar on campus over his replacement. Brad Lee is interpreting for President Jordan. Again, we’re providing real-time captioning at our web site. For more information on how to access the captioning, go to NPR, and if you have questions for… If you have any questions for I. King Jordan, call 1-800-989-8255. E-mail is [email protected] And let’s get another caller on. This is Evelyn from here in Washington, D.C.

CALLER: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I wanted to let you know I have a daughter who is hearing impaired, and I was a little disappointed that the students won in the confrontation because I think Gallaudet needs to be more inclusive of all forms of deafness. As the parent of a hearing impaired child, I want her to function in a hearing world. It seems the students didn’t want to accept anyone who didn’t go into the deaf culture with a capital “D” who was willing to just sign and give up the cochlear implants and hearing aids, any other device that would be an aid to hearing. I thought it was a shame that the students won this summer. Thank you.

JORDAN: I’d be happy to respond to that, if I may. I think it’s really important for you to know that the board of trustees last year approved a strategic plan for Gallaudet’s future that is very simple. It has eight specific goals, and the very first goal is that Gallaudet will be an inclusive deaf university, and then in that goal it defines an inclusive deaf university to include people who are deaf in many different ways. The university embraces technology that helps all kinds of deaf people. You may not know this, but we have a cochlear implant education center at our Kendall Elementary School. We have a demonstration elementary school and demonstration high school. The cochlear implant education center, for part of the day children communicate in sign language, and part of the day they practice their speaking and listening skills– the perfect way for a young deaf child to achieve.

CONAN: Evelyn?

CALLER: Well, this… our daughter has been in a hearing school her whole life, and one of the things we did this summer was we wanted her to become familiar with the deaf culture. And so we signed her up at Gallaudet for an American Sign Language course, and she came back and she said… she was a little disappointed. She felt that it was a little bit too militant, no one wanted her to speak, and they really weren’t interested in fostering anything other than American Sign Language. I now understand that many hearing impaired people use American Sign Language, so it was a little disheartening for me. I don’t know.

CONAN: You talked about… I. King Jordan, you talked about this inclusiveness as part of the strategic plan. Nevertheless, that did seem to be an aspect of what this demonstration was about this fall.

JORDAN: There are people who don’t embrace the idea of inclusion. But there are people, more people, who do embrace the idea of inclusion. And it’s very important, I believe, for the future of people like Michelle’s daughter that we recognize that there are many different ways to be deaf in the world and that we recognize that people have a right to choose how they will be deaf and that we have a responsibility to help them achieve.

CONAN: Evelyn thanks for the call.

CALLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck with your daughter.

JORDAN: Oh, I said Michelle. Sorry, her name was Evelyn. Evelyn, I’m very sorry that I got your name wrong.

CONAN: Here’s an e-mail we got from Sheila in Middletown, Connecticut. This event at Gallaudet happened during a time that has been difficult for the deaf community under the Bush Administration. For example, the long-time federal funding for the National Theater of the Deaf and Deaf West Theater has been completely eliminated. Now with the high profile senator John McCain abruptly resigning from the Gallaudet board, do you think this will damage the efforts and credibility of the many people working tirelessly to regain federal support for these other deaf culture causes?

JORDAN: I don’t think it will damage things. I can’t speak for John McCain, but he made very public his rationale for resigning. He disagreed with the board’s decision and said it wasn’t fair and in the best interest of the university. But I know a little something about the funding for the National Theater of the Deaf, and I know that was just a clerical mistake in pushing a bill through Congress. And I’m very sure that someone is going to find a way to fix that mistake.

CONAN: In the year 2000, Gallaudet was terrorized by a series of thefts and murders, and with us today is the father of murdered student Eric Plunkett. Craig Plunkett joins us from Portland, Oregon. Good to have you on the program, Craig.

CALLER: Thank you.

CONAN: You wrote an editorial in the “Washington Post” that supported I. King Jordan and Jane Fernandes. Why?

CALLER: Well, my wife and I were back in D.C. for I. King Jordan and Linda’s retirement party dinner, and we were on the campus that week that there was… that the students were demonstrating. And it really upset us to see how that campus was being torn apart. And then reading the articles in the “Post,” that was just another part of being upset.

CONAN: Why were you so upset?

CALLER: Well, I… because we… through the last six years, we have been able to be back on that campus many, many times. And we feel that… my wife and I feel a very strong bond with the people on that campus– I. King Jordan, Linda, Jane, and many other people on that campus.

CONAN: When you say “Jane,” Jane Fernandes?

CALLER: Jane Fernandes. And we’ve got to know them as actual human beings, and we’ve been able to sit down and become friends, very close friends. I believe that we’re very close friends with King and Linda and Jane Fernandes.

CONAN: And clearly… how did they help you through the awfulness of having your child murdered?

CALLER: Well, what they did is they reached out to us. We came back on that campus two or three days after Eric was found murdered. And that… and there was a small group of people that reached out to us. King, Linda, Jane Fernandes, they wanted to comfort us.

They wanted to… to show that they loved us as parents, but also that this was a traumatic experience for them, also. But they wanted to… you know, they bent over backwards to show us a love and kindness and shepherd us when we were back there on that campus, shepherd us through all the difficult things we had to go through.

CONAN: And do you, too, still feel like part of the Gallaudet community?

CALLER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We still… no matter what happens on Gallaudet, on the campus, we feel… we still feel a strong bond because we have the Eric Plunkett video library that we dedicated. Gallaudet was gracious enough to take Eric’s room and open it up and make a video library out of his room for the students of Gallaudet. And so his family, Eric’s family has donated movies for the students, and the people at Gallaudet have put money into it. And so… and Eric has… memorial scholarship fund that a few students that came from Minnesota started. And that has been growing.

So, yes, we feel very strong bonds to Gallaudet.

CONAN: Craig Plunkett thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

CALLER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Craig Plunkett, the father of Eric Plunkett who was murdered on the Gallaudet campus in 2000, and he joins us today from Portland, Oregon.

JORDAN: May I say something about Craig Plunkett?

CONAN: Sure, go ahead. William is on the line. Hold on, William, we’ll be right with you.

JORDAN: The only positive thing that came out of the Eric Plunkett situation was getting to know Craig and Lois Plunkett and Kathleen and Chris Cornell, the family of Eric.

And I listened to him say that we comforted him. It was really marvelous how strong that family was and how they reached out and comforted the university. It was a very difficult time on campus, and without their strength, it would have been much more difficult.

So thank you, Craig.

CONAN: William is on the line calling from Cincinnati.

CALLER: Yes. Thank you very much. I had a two-part question. It’s more a general one. My daughter is deaf and she’s eight years now, eight years old. And coming from a family that wasn’t deaf, I found the experiences… you know, we had her in private school for a while, and last year it didn’t work out. She moved to public, she’s accelerating at a huge level. There are two things that I have points to make on. One, I found that the deaf community itself, the old one in Cincinnati that has been established for so long, very closed, very sheltered and in terms of not as good as imparting information. The second thing that I found was, you know, we had a director over there that as far as I can see the family has been running it for so long. And I just asked the gentleman, would he tell me what a fair time is for a family or a director to stay in the university similar to you with special needs? Thank you. I’ll wait your call.

CONAN: William thanks very much for the call.

JORDAN: I’m very happy to know that your daughter is doing well in school. You’re probably aware of that the majority of children who are deaf are educated in public schools, in the mainstream. And that’s good. I’m glad that she’s succeeding. I think it’s important to remember that deaf children, no matter where they’re educated, have very special needs, and the most important of those needs is visual communication. We can’t hear, so we need our eyes to learn. Apparently, the school where she’s located is doing a good job with that. I’m glad to hear that. In terms of a specific number of years for somebody to lead an organization, there’s no number. There’s no number. Some people should stay a very short time, some people should stay a very long time. And honestly I’m not familiar with the center you’re talking about, so I can’t talk specifically about that.

CONAN: Our guest today is I. King Jordan, the outgoing president of Gallaudet University. You’re listening to “Talk of the Nation” from NPR news. And let’s see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is a student… I’m sorry; I’m looking at my producer. Where is this call? Nikita’s on the line with us in Oklahoma City. Nikita, can you hear us? I’m sorry, which line is it? There we go. There you go. Nikita? Hello, Nikita, are you there?

CALLER: Yes, I’m here.

CONAN: You’re on the air. Go ahead, please.

CALLER: Okay, can you please explain how your, you were elected as president of Gallaudet in 1988 to improve the world today, of deaf students?

CONAN: I think she’s taking notes for her essay she’s going to be writing.

JORDAN: Thank you very much, Nikita. Let me tell you that I will be in Oklahoma City this summer. The national association… let’s see, the Association of America, which used to be called Self-help for the Hard of Hearing will have their meeting in June so come see me and meet me in person. How did I improve the lives of deaf people? What happened is, the lives of deaf people improved because people who are not deaf saw that I was a successful president. When I succeeded as president, they saw, oh, deaf people can do this high-level job. So if deaf people could do that, then they can probably do other jobs as well. And I think the most important success I had, the most important thing I’ve accomplished in 19 years as president of Gallaudet is to have succeeded as president because by doing so I become a model for success and other people, young and old alike. They know they can succeed as well.

CONAN: Nikita, I understand you’re in a classroom?

CALLER: (laughs)

CONAN: Nikita’s a little nervous, I think. Nikita, are you there?

CALLER: Yes, I’m here.

CONAN: And what are you asking this question for? On behalf of the class or are you working on a project?

CALLER: I’m in class right now.

CONAN: You’re working on a project?

CALLER: Yes, I’m taking notes.

CONAN: When is your project due?

CALLER: Oh, it’s not really a project. It’s like a discussion in class.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for including us. We appreciate it. She’s having a hard time hearing me. We thank Nikita very much for her call. We have a minute or so before we have to go to the next break. President Jordan, you talked about your success as a deaf man as the head of an important institution.

To some degree, I wonder if you’ve been a victim of your own success, where so many promising college students who are deaf now go on to places like Harvard or Ohio State University or the University of California at Berkeley instead of coming to Gallaudet partly because they saw you can.

JORDAN: Well, I think that’s a wonderful question and it’s an important question because with the Americans with Disabilities Act, people can go to any college or university where that college and university now has the responsibility to provide support services for them.

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