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Protest and Trust at Gallaudet University

by Margaret Weigers Vitullo1, Gallaudet University

Between May and October 2006, Gallaudet University was held in the grips of a protest. At the height of the protest, classes were cancelled, the main academic building was taken over and occupied by student protestors, a hunger strike was called, the entire campus was locked down for four days, and over 130 students were arrested. The protest ended when the Board of Trustees voted to rescind their selection of Dr. Jane Fernandes as the next President of Gallaudet.

The protest was a moment of glory and pride for many Deaf people in America. A few months after the protest ended, the Bay Area Gallaudet alumni association organized a huge “Deaf Unity Gala” in San Francisco and flew in four of the student protest leaders. The Internet announcement of the event explained, “As a result of the protest, there has been raised national awareness and recognition, national and international media attention, and reawakened discussion on American Sign Language” (DCARA 2006).

The air of victory permeating the campus was dampened by other postprotest events. After the Board’s decision, Senator John McCain resigned from the Board of Trustees, saying “I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on the board after its decision to terminate [Fernandes’] appointment, which I believe was unfair and not in the best interests of the university” (Kinzie 2006). Because more than 70 percent of the university’s funding is from the federal government, this resignation is a potential disaster for Gallaudet. Moreover, in the wake of the protest the Middle States Commission on Higher Education decided to place a “hold” on Gallaudet’s reaccreditation, and it sent a high profile team to the university to communicate— among other concerns—that the protest was in clear violation of the standards of accreditation because it interrupted the educational process.

How could a protest that was widely perceived as a glorious moment of Deaf unity simultaneously raise questions about the fundamental credibility of the university? What accounts for the complete disjuncture between these views of the protest at Gallaudet?

Trust in Political Conflict

A 2007 American Sociological Review (ASR) article on trust in political conflicts sheds considerable light on this question. The authors did ethnographic work in an Israeli textile manufacturing plant located in Jordan. Their data collection started before the Intifada el Aqsa began in 2000, and continued as the political conflict escalated. The authors explain that social actors draw on repertoires of trust-building strategies to establish understanding and cooperation. Some strategies aim to build calculative trust; other strategies focus on building normative trust. Calculative trust is based on performance and competence, such as in impersonal and instrumental relationships. Normative trust is based on a sense of belonging and feelings, such as in families and communities. Although the sociology of organizations literature often associates calculative trust with “modern” societies, and normative trust with “traditional” societies, the authors argue that all social groups will use different strategies depending on their current levels of power and control as well as their political circumstances.

The difference in meaning between Deaf and deaf begins to reveal the basis of the normative trust system used by the protestors. The capitalization of Deaf signifies an entire culture that shares a language (American Sign Language or ASL), unique literary forms such as hand-shape stories, and a long and proud history in the United States. Without the capitalization, deaf signifies an audiological condition—not being able to hear sounds in the “normal” range. In the Deaf-World, being deaf is an ethnic trait (Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996). Deaf Pride is a beautiful concept full of meaning and light. Deafhood is the lived experience of a Deaf person (Ladd 2003).

Membership in the Family

To the Gallaudet protestors, supporting the protest was a characteristic of Deafhood. As long as you “got it” you were in—whether deaf, hard of hearing, or even hearing—because the litmus test for trust was a desire to have membership in the family. In the Deaf-World, Gallaudet is seen as the symbolic “home.” Students who wanted to re-enter campus during the lockdown were asked at the gate if they supported the protest. As long as they affirmed their support, they could come home (figuratively, and in the case of the many students living in the dorms, literally).

Power, people who use normative trust often have few other forms of power or control. Without the controls necessary to make people outside the family conform, they try to draw people into their family to gain power. In the ASR article on the Israeli/Jordanian textile factory, the researchers report that in the beginning of the collaboration the Jordanians had difficulty meeting the Israeli production timelines and quality standards. The Jordanians responded by trying to blur the boundaries between personal and professional realms.

The parallel between factory production and quality standards, and academic rigor and grades is clear. In the normative home and family approach to trust, you know you can always go home. Most students who fail in college go home. But when college is home, the situation becomes far more complicated.

Normative or Calculative?

Calculative trust explains the inherent conflict that arises when college becomes home. Calculative trust is based on evidence and performance. Based on calculative trust, the Israeli managers felt free to tell Jordanian workers when production did not meet standards. The Israelis viewed this as a comment on work, completely apart from personal relationships. The Jordanians viewed the criticisms as a personal attack. In a relaxed moment between the Jordanians and Israelis, one of the Jordanian managers teased that the Israelis would fire their own brothers if they didn’t perform well enough.

The strong contrast between the normative trust strategies inherent in the concept of Gallaudet as home to the Deaf-World, and the calculative trust strategies used by universities and accrediting organizations was highlighted during the open-forum lecture Fernandes gave as part of her interview for the position of university president. She stated that Gallaudet would have to raise standards and tell students who were unprepared to perform at a college level that they would need to enroll in community college first, and when ready, transfer to Gallaudet.

Fernandes’ suggestion addressed a fundamental challenge in deaf education. The vast majority—up to 95 percent—of deaf children are born to hearing adults (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004). Therefore, many deaf children do not get access to full language until they are of school age, and then only if their parents enroll them in an educational program based on ASL. A long-term effect of missing early exposure to language becomes evident in the academic performance of many deaf children. While far from universal, many deaf students’ academic performance is well below grade level.

In the years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made providing interpreters to deaf students a legal requirement, Gallaudet’s enrollment declined, with many highachieving deaf students choosing mainstream colleges and universities. Yet, just as historically black colleges and universities continued to have a special niche after the end of segregation, Gallaudet has continued to attract quality students seeking the advantage of complete communication access and the experience of being the majority on campus. Yet, in the post-ADA era, Gallaudet is only one option available to academically excellent deaf students.

What Went Wrong

When Fernandes suggested entrance requirements and more stringent performance evaluations for students at Gallaudet, she spoke words that made sense within the world of academia and calculative trust systems. However, her plan struck at the heart of normative trust. Gallaudet is widely viewed as “Deaf Mecca” (Mowl 2006). Mecca welcomes every member of the community who is financially and physically able to make the trip. Within the Deaf-World, Fernandes committed blasphemy—she wanted to regulate the gates of Mecca.

The protestors sent death threats to Fernandes. They regularly drove slowly past her home, and they set up coo-coo clocks on her lawn. For supporting her, the out-going president of the university, Dr. Jordan, also received death threats. His adult daughter, who lives thousands of miles from Gallaudet, woke one morning to find her driveway carpeted in nails. The protestors personally attacked these individuals because normative trust is about personal relationships and the family. In the normative trust system, if you feel personally attacked at the level of your family, then retaliating at the same level may be viewed as justified.

In an interview with BBC, a Gallaudet alumna explained, “People want to feel energized, to trust the people at the top. At Gallaudet, if you feel safe, and you feel trust, then everything goes well. But if you don’t feel safe, which is what a lot of people feel with [Fernandes], then you don’t feel you can achieve.”2

Feeling safe and connected is the ideal condition of the family and the basis for normative trust. Academia, in contrast, is based on calculative trust. Admission standards, assignments, and grading criteria must be fair and clear; work must be judged carefully and impartially. Individuals are included or excluded based on performance that satisfies the necessary criteria.

Shifting Power Dynamics

In the ASR article, the authors stress that groups are not limited to one trustbuilding strategy—they have cultural repertoires of approaches. When faced with a greatly changed power dynamic due to the political crisis of the Intifada el Aqsa, the Israelis began using normative trust strategies and the Jordanians switched to calculative trust strategies. What remains to be seen is if the people who supported the protest at Gallaudet will make a similar shift. The interim president, Dr. Robert Davila, has signaled his support for the protest by appointing protest leaders to key positions in his administration. He has also made clear that he intends to respond effectively to the concerns raised by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and put Gallaudet University back on solid footing as a university. The success of his efforts may well depend upon his ability to make use of a full repertoire of trustbuilding strategies.

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1 Following Dorothy Smith’s feminist standpoint theory (1990), which inevitably influences my analysis, making certain aspects of social structure visible to me, and perhaps obscuring other aspects. I am a hearing, white woman who views my 10 years of work at Gallaudet and my acceptance by many Deaf friends and colleagues as a tremendous privilege. I also was actively and publicly opposed to the protest at Gallaudet. While my standpoint influences my analysis, it does not necessarily weaken it.

2 The alumna was the daughter of one of the three finalists for the position of president.


Deaf Counseling, Advocacy, and Referral Agency (DCARA). “Deaf Unity Gala with the Gallaudet Student Leaders” http://

Kinzie S. 2006. “Gallaudet Trustees Chair Resigns: McCain Also Leaves Board.” Washington Post Nov. 8 B01.

Ladd P. 2003. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Dawn Sign Press: San Diego.

Lane H., Hoffmeister R., Bahan B. 1996. A Journey into the Deaf-World. Dawn Sign Press: San Diego.

Mitchell R., Karchmer M. 2004. “Chasing the Mythical Ten Percent: Parental Hearing Status of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students in the United States.” Sign Language Studies. 4(2):231-246.

Mizrachi N., Drori I, Anspach R. 2007. “Repertoires of Trust: The Practice of Trust in a Multinational Organization amid Political Conflict.” American Sociological Review. 72(1):143-165.

Mowl, Anthony. 2006. “Why I’m Protesting.” Inside Higher Education. May 5, 2006.

Smith D. 1990. The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge. Northeastern University Press: Boston. Protest and Trust at Gallaudet University

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