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Healing Gallaudet

Healing Gallaudet
Months after student protests resulted in the ouster of its president-elect, Gallaudet University is looking to turn the page under interim president Robert Davila.

By Patricia Valdata

Dr. Robert R. Davila became interim president of Gallaudet University on Jan. 1, after a prolonged campus protest resulted in the removal of president-designate Dr. Jane K. Fernandes (see Diverse, Nov. 16, 2006).

Davila, the son of Mexican parents, lost his hearing at age eight after contracting spinal meningitis. He is a 1953 alumnus of Gallaudet and was a faculty member and administrator there. He has also served as vice president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and has been assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education. Davila, who holds a doctorate in educational technology from Syracuse University, came out of retirement to accept the two-year interim appointment at Gallaudet. Davila recently spoke with Diverse about healing the fractured campus and improving its financial standing and low graduation rates.

DI: You have many issues to deal with as the interim president. Can you tell us about your overall plans?

RD: I felt one of the first priorities for anyone coming here would be to heal the university.

DI: What have you done to accomplish that?

RD: I have established very regular and consistent communication. Every week, I’ve done a video as well as a written message to the community. I have had ongoing communication with the faculty senate. I know that one of the issues the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools identified was a need to strengthen shared governance. I am comfortable with that.

DI: Another major issue facing you, also from the accrediting agency Middle States, is the need to strengthen academics.

How are you going to address the low graduation rate?

RD: In 1988, there was a commission on the education of the deaf appointed by Congress. One of the most important observations they made is that seven of every 10 four-year college students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing do not get their degrees. That survey did not include Gallaudet or the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. For children who are born deaf, acquiring competence in a spoken language or written language is a lifelong effort. I had the benefit of being able to hear when I was a little boy. I didn’t know English, I knew Spanish, but as an adult, I had internalized a language, and because of that I was able to pick up a second and third language. But children who are born deaf struggle all their lives. And in college, almost everything is a test of reading.

DI: Gallaudet is also having financial problems. How are you addressing that?

RD: I know the government, I know how it works, and I know how demanding the Department of Education can be. The best answer and the best argument we have going for ourselves is the fact that our graduates, and even those who don’t graduate, go out into the community and they do well. I’ve been an administrator for 35 years or more, and I’ve never overspent a budget. I am going to be looking at all of the university with the goal of trying to become more cost effective.

DI: Where do things stand with Middle States?

RD: The MSA asked us to develop a report by March 1 to explain details of our plans. We have until 2008 to submit a final report.

DI: And you still have your accreditation?

RD: Oh, yes. Our accreditation has not been removed, we are not on probation.

DI: How did you resolve the problem of the security staff and their need to sign more?

RD: We have a program in place, but not enough. It’s difficult —
I can’t think of any other place where a person who wants to be a security officer is required to learn and be competent in a second language. I am proposing to the staff that we allow more company time to be used for the purpose of learning on the job. And second, we need to bring in consultants or security professionals to train our force in how to deal with unusual circumstances. Fortunately no one was really injured during [the October] confrontation, but there’s no point in looking back now; we have to look forward.

DI: Do you think there’s a sense, then, that it was worth what happened in October?

RD: You mean the protest? No. The chairman of the MSA committee praised the university for its great history and for all the good things that we have done over the years, but then he balanced that by saying, “The protest was a mistake, a huge mistake. It should have never happened.” And you can’t really argue with that.

There are lessons for us to be learned from this experience, and we are going to learn them. But to answer your question, there
were no winners.

DI: So what is your hope for the next two years?

RD: Well, two years is hardly enough time. Nevertheless, I want to heal the campus; I want to comply with all the MSA expectations; I want our accreditation to be up front and solid; I want us to update our databases so that we can make good decisions; I want to engage in as much curriculum reform as we can; I want to have a working agenda that … a new president could pick up and move forward.

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