Once Spurned, Provost Prepares to Lead Another College

Ben Jenkins, Guilford College

Jane K. Fernandes

May 19, 2014

College presidents might typically hold their jobs for eight or 10 years. Jane K. Fernandes’s first appointment as a college chief, at Gallaudet University, didn’t approach that: It never even began.

In 2006, after her selection led to prolonged campus protests, Gallaudet’s trustees rescinded her appointment.

Ms. Fernandes, 57, recalls the events as she again prepares to become a president, this time at Guilford College, a liberal-arts institution in North Carolina, beginning July 1. "It was very difficult for me to recuperate," she says by Internet video hookup from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where she has been provost since 2008.

There, she says, she learned much more than she had known in 2006 about institutional leadership. Most striking is that she can now say: "I have no regrets. I’m grateful for everything that happened. I’m in a good place."

At Gallaudet, a liberal-arts institution that serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Ms. Fernandes seemed to have become ensnared in identity politics. After I. King Jordan Jr., Gallaudet’s first deaf president, decided to retire, the university named Ms. Fernandes as his successor.

She says she knew that "at Gallaudet, the president is both the leader of a university who has the same job as any university president, but also is seen as like a mayor of the deaf community," and she had reason to imagine she could occupy town hall. She was in her sixth year as Gallaudet’s provost and was married to a professor there. She has been deaf since birth, and was raised by a deaf mother and hearing father.

Even with all that, protests arose because, she says, "I was seen as not deaf enough." Student protesters said their objections were, rather, to Ms. Fernandes’s management style, but a battle has long raged among deaf Americans about the merits and even cultural pride inherent in "manualism"—signing—versus "oralism"—learning to speak audibly.

During the video interview, Ms. Fernandes speaks both orally, with tinges of a Boston accent, and by signing. To understand spoken language, she says, she lip-reads along with using an interpreter. Massachusetts-raised, she learned to speak long before she went from undergraduate studies at Trinity College, in Connecticut, to master’s and doctoral degrees in comparative literature from the University of Iowa. At Iowa, she learned American Sign Language.

Edward C. Winslow III, a lawyer in Greensboro, N.C., and chair-elect of Guilford’s Board of Trustees, says that among various college constituencies, "people felt a congruence or resonance between her and the mission of our college." Particularly winning, he says, were Ms. Fernandes’s reflections on her Gallaudet experiences, including that she considered becoming a president again only after she visited Guilford last year to deliver a guest lecture about deaf culture.

She says that at Asheville, she has "learned to delve more deeply into the multiple perspectives around any issue." With upper- management training and mentoring, "I think I’m better prepared to be successful as a president."

David M. Dobson, a professor of geology who will become the clerk of faculty at Guilford in July, found Ms. Fernandes particularly strong in consensus building, which has long been emphasized at Guilford, in part because of its Quaker roots: "She seemed really to get the idea of Guilford and the things we like to do with social justice and diversity."

He recognizes the irony in that, given that Gallaudet protesters took her to task for lacking some of those attributes.

Like the departing 12-year president, Kent John Chabotar, Ms. Fernandes is not a Quaker, but she says she looks forward to learning Quaker ways, and to sustaining Mr. Chabotar’s accomplishments. He is credited with having exercised enough charisma, judgment, and resolution that he was able to deliver the college from serious financial challenge, all while championing its stated dedication to liberal arts as a way to promote "positive change in the world."

Ms. Fernandes has already formed her own phrasing of the college’s expressed goals for its students, 1,200 of whom are traditionally enrolled, with almost 1,000 older students admitted through its Center for Continuing Education. She says that they should "learn how to be civil and useful."

"In contrast to the old ivory-tower perception of the liberal arts," she says, extending her interpretation, "Guilford College is involved in the community, and graduates all know how to think."