The campus of Gallaudet University has been rocked by yet another scandal. As has been widely reported, Gallaudet, a Federally Chartered University for the deaf in Washington D.C., placed Dr. Angela McCaskill on paid leave October 11th pending investigation into whether or not signing a petition has compromised her ability to perform her duties as the school’s Chief Diversity Officer.
McCaskill has a long history at Gallaudet. The first Black female to receive a PhD from the school, McCaskill has been employed by Gallaudet for 24 years. Earlier this summer McCaskill signed a petition in favor of Maryland’s Question 6 which calls for a referendum on same sex marriage. McCaskill was confronted earlier this month by faculty members she later identified as M.j. Beinvenu and Kendra Smith. Unsatisfied with McCaskill’s response, Beinvenu reportedly filed a formal complaint with the University.
In a statement given Tuesday by McCaskill, she claims she met with Hurwitz and suggested a campus wide dialogue be opened. According to McCaskill, Beinvenu was unhappy with this proposal and demanded that McCaskill publicly apologize for signing the petition. Other reports say Beinvenu also demanded McCaskill’s termination. Unable to reach an agreement, Hurwitz placed McCaskill on administrative leave. On Tuesday Hurwitz released a statement to “indicate forcefully” that the school would like to work with McCaskill to enable her to return from administrative leave and continue as Chief Diversity Officer. McCaskill however is still considering her options and according to her attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, she has not ruled out legal action.
McCaskill has stated that she feels she was bullied by the faculty members and should be compensated for the emotional trauma this has caused. Legal scholars have suggested that the bullying could possibly rise to the level criminal intimidation.
Past troubles at Gallaudet
This isn’t the first incident of bullying or intimidation at Gallaudet. In 1988 the university faced a campus wide protest after Elizabeth Zinser (a hearing person) was selected as the President of The university. Students demanded that the University hire a deaf person as the new university president instead. Despite the fact that Gallaudet prides itself on diversity, students barricaded the campus entrances and burned trustees in effigy in what a former student described as “an attempt to force the university to hire someone ‘like them.’” The movement known as “Deaf President Now” eventually resulted in the hiring of I. King Jordan.
In September 2000 Eric Plunkett was murdered in Cogswell Hall, one of the Gallaudet dorms. Plunkett, a freshman from Minnesota, was a member of the Lambda Society, a gay and lesbian group on campus. According to one former student, panic spread across campus as students worried this murder was a hate crime caused by Plunkett’s association with Lambda. “The administration acted quickly by mandating GLBT awareness and sensitivity training for all students” said the former student. Eventually, Thomas Minch was arrested for the murder. Minch had a close relationship with Plunkett, but police were unable to make a case against Minch and he was subsequently released. Gallaudet did not allow Minch to return to campus despite the protest of many students and faculty who felt he should be welcomed back.In February 2001 a second murder occurred in Cogswell Hall.
Ben Varner a freshman from Texas was stabbed 17 times and left for dead in his dorm room. According to another former student a large portion of the faculty again believed this to be a hate crime. The student claims this caused quite a controversy on campus because Ben was not known to be gay. Days later, Joseph Mesa, a student from Guam was arrested for murder. Police were tipped to Mesa when he forged and attempted to cash a check on Varner’s bank account. Mesa would later admit to murdering Eric Plunkett as well. Mesa told police there was a “devil on his shoulder telling him to kill” and others testified that Mesa was known to fly into unpredictable fits of rage. Despite the admission and testimony, some on the Gallaudet faculty remained certain that the motive was a hate crime. In “Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking” a collaboration of deaf scholars, M.J. Beinvenu wrote with dismay that police dismissed the possibility of the murders being hate crimes. Beinvenu wrote ”Later after Mesa was arrested and tried, he admitted that he chose his two victims because they seemed weak to him. Through L/G (Lesbian/Gay) eyes it was evident that Mesa could have thought Ben was weak because he presumed him gay, or vice versa. But no one (including the police) would recognize these atrocities as hate crimes because Ben wasn’t gay”
In the same book, Beinvenu, an “out” lesbian and her partner Kendra Smith (the second person McCaskill claims is involved in the complaint) provided a handout that they first distributed in 1999 comparing similarities between being gay and being deaf. They listed parental,educational and societal similarities among others. A campus divide between gay and straight cultures was becoming more apparent. That division becomes even clearer with comments on ratemyprofessor.com Comments on Beinvenu included:
“Um, what can I say abt her? She is great professor, however, she apparently know her content only in “GLBT” issues, not other issues in oppression. Most of her class discussion tend focus based on her experience as “Lesbian” which I have nothing against it. Come on, there are other issues involved, blahhies on her issue is losing our focuses in her”
“She is anti-intellectual. She does not acknowledge any views other than her own. You can get an A by agreeing with her — even if she is wrong. That’s really tragic for a university professor.”
as well as positive comments like..
“Great legendary professor!”
Kendra Smith received similar comments (although much lower ratings)…
“Kendra is a new professor. She is not sensitive to diversity. She claims to be an expert, but she oppresses people. I was an Asian student and I tried to talk to her when she was my supervisor. From what I heard from others, she took jobs from deaf people.”
“She does not know how to teach. She depends on her partner, MJ Bienvenu a lot. She used her all the time for her role play activities.”
“Don’t take the course under her unless you are hearing.”
These comments reflect the type of division that has taken place on campus since 1988. Gay vs Straight issues have becoming increasingly problematic at Gallaudet but the division between those who consider themselves culturally Deaf vs. those who became deaf postlingually has become equally troubling.
In 2003 a student was reportedly denied graduation due to a conflict in one class. The student claims he lacked one senior level English course before graduating. According to the student, during the course Dr. Pia Seagrave gave a lecture on homosexuality (again this was an English course). The student says a catholic classmate raised an objection to the subject for which she was berated in front of classmates. Part of the course required students to keep a “reactionary journal” for their thoughts on class discussions. The first student noted in his journal that he was not happy with how the professor had berated his classmate. He claims Dr. Seagrave demanded an apology for this entry and even threatened a lawsuit. This month, 9 years later, the issue has been settled and he says he will finally be receiving his degree.
In 2006 the Deaf President Now movement became active for a second time. I. King Jordan resigned and Jane K. Fernandes was selected as the new president. The selection of Fernandes did not sit well with some faculty members and students. Although deaf, Fernandes did not learn sign language until later in life. As deaf blogger Mike McConnell (aka Kokonut Pundit) writes, Fernandes was seen as “not deaf enough” This led to a second major student protest but unlike 1988, students and faculty now had a larger voice….the Internet. Deaf forums were filled with threats of violence including bombings and death. Dr McCaskill reflected on the 2006 event in her press conference Tuesday…
“I quickly looked back to the protest of 2006 Several radical people pushed the students to the front to debate student’s agenda. It was not the student’s agenda. It was not student’s agenda back then and it is not student’s agenda now.”
One of the outspoken faculty members behind the students of this second movement, now called “Unity for Gallaudet” was Dr. Beinvenu. The movement became so volatile that trustee Celia May Baldwin resigned. McConnell provided her statement.
“May 9, 2006
TO: Bill Graham, Board Secretary
FROM: Celia May Baldwin
SUBJECT: Tenure on the Board of Trustees
After many sleepless nights and much reflection these past several days, I regret to tell you that on Sunday night I came to the decision to resign from the Gallaudet Board of Trustees. The presidential search and the controversy that has ensued have put enormous strain and stress on me. I simply could not ignore the numerous aggressive threats I have received over the past weeks.
I cannot express how disappointed I am that it has to come to this point. However, I trust that you will give me your full support and understanding in my decision.
It is my sincerest hope that you feel I have served Gallaudet University to the fullest in the years that I have been on the Board. I admire and respect each of my colleagues on the Board and am glad that I had the opportunity of working closely with several of them in the recent months as the Interim Chair. I also appreciate all the assistance I received from the President’s Office. I am truly saddened by recent events.
I am confident that we all share the same goal of working towards the best possible future for Gallaudet University. Thank you for allowing me to serve this fine institution.”
It is apparent that Ms. Baldwin feels she suffered the same type of bullying that McCaskill and others have claimed to have suffered
In 2007 Gallaudet had it’s accreditation put on probation by The Mid States Commission of Higher Education for not meeting academic goals. The Washington Post reported “criteria used to admit students, the rigor of the academics and low graduation rates” were to blame. The University was later reaffirmed. Around the same time The Office of Management and Budget also became concerned that Gallaudet was not meeting educational expectations.
Why This Is Important
As mentioned earlier, Gallaudet is a federally chartered university. This means the university is funded by federal tax dollars, they report annually to the Dept. of Education and three seats on the Board of Trustees are reserved for members of Congress. Currently those seats are filled by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California and Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas.
Gallaudet’s budget for 2012 is $171 million. Although the 2012 number is unavailable, the amount provided by the Federal Government in 2011 was in excess of $123 million. In addition, students pay over $12,000 a semester for tuition. However, with many of those dollars coming through federal financial aid and state funded vocational rehabilitation, taxpayers pay most of this bill as well. And the burden does not end there. Because deaf students are considered disabled, many receive SSI,SSDI (disability),Medicaid and food stamps. All of this to educate 1,611 students 428 of which are graduate students. And not all of these students are deaf, Gallaudet accepts a few hearing graduate and undergraduate students as well.
Not to be lost in this is the timing of McCaskill’s leave which happened to coincide not only with the October Board of Trustee meeting October 10-12th but also “National Coming Out Day” on October 11th. Messages were sent to all three members of congress that sit on Gallaudet’s board but they have not responded. According to Facebook posts, it appears Sherrod,Woolsey and Yoder were all in their home states during the October Board of Trustee meeting. Gallaudet has not yet posted the minutes of the most recent meeting on the university website. If indeed the congress members were not in attendance, one of the safeguards provided by the federal charter failed to protect taxpayers, leaving trustees and faculty members to do as they see fit. One has to wonder if congress members are merely “rubber stamping” policies set by people with an alleged history of bullying. Also of note, Beinvenu and Smith are not just faculty members, they also sit on the 22 member Faculty Senate.
Much like Howard University, a federally chartered black university formed with the intent of helping freed blacks assimilate into society after the Civil War, Gallaudet was formed with the hope of providing a path for the deaf individuals to fit into society. However, what has resulted is an ineffective blend of political correctness and what Dr. I. King Jordan viewed as “identity politics.” Rather than joining society, a cruel culture of isolation has developed at Gallaudet in which a person trying to achieve success is held back or punished for not fitting into “deaf culture.” It’s telling that very few were willing to identify themselves for this article for fear of being ostracized by the deaf community. As McConnell often blogs, the “all or nothing mentality” is an oppressive and constant fact of life in the deaf community and at Gallaudet.
Ultimately, taxpayers must decide whether or not Gallaudet University is worth funding. $171 million for 1611 students comes to over $100,000 per year per student and that does not include disability benefits. Despite this large federal grant, the Gallaudet Administration seems to have lost control. Continued infighting and bullying among the faculty could potentially cost taxpayers more money in legal fees and settlements. Given that Gallaudet has failed to meet it’s goals or serve it’s purpose it is hard to see the value in continuing funding.