Surrounded By Silence, Guilford College President Finds Her Voice
She was born deaf. She didn’t learn sign language until her 20s. She was on track to run the world’s only university for the deaf when her career was derailed by controversy. Now, on a quiet campus in Greensboro, Jane Fernandes is finally finding her voice.
It’s a good day for a walk on the Guilford College campus, among the redbrick buildings with their white Doric and Ionic columns, beneath the poplar, pine, and locust trees, over the red pathways of pavers cutting across the green grass.
Jane Fernandes strolls out of Hege Library, the birds chirping overhead. A bike whizzes across the quad, the chain zizzling through the derailleur. Traffic a quarter-mile away provides a baseline hum, punctuated by the occasional rattling muffler. Up ahead, the door to Founders Hall, her destination, squeaks open and shut.
Two young students are gabbing away, coming up behind Jane. Within seconds, a woman in a brown suit and blue shirt, who had been walking a few steps ahead of her, wheels around and discreetly points to the girls. She looks at Jane. She starts to sign.
This happens a lot. People talk among themselves, but within earshot, and the interpreter, a tall brunette named Jennifer Johnson, will point or flick her eyes in their direction, and then start converting their words into sign language. Sometimes, Jane will want to listen to something specific, and she’ll point to the people she wants to hear. If the room is too loud to pick out words, Jennifer will hold her hands about a foot apart in front of her chest — palms open and facing each other — and shake them. It means, simply, “chitchat.”
This can be awkward. A private conversation in a public place can be eavesdropped upon, sure, but usually there’s no overt signal that anyone is listening in. Sometimes people don’t notice Jennifer. Sometimes they do. Jane doesn’t apologize. “Hearing just happens to you,” she’ll tell a hearing person. “It’s not a decision.” For her, it is.
Jane is the president of Guilford College.
She is deaf.
Laughing (here, with faculty deans during plans for her inauguration) is the same in American Sign Language and English. photograph by logan cyrus
At Jane’s office later that afternoon, some professors drop by. They want to bounce some ideas off of her. How about a new two-year program? Could we learn something from the way Finnish schools teach students? Why don’t we build a tiny house as a project?
The template for each appointment is the same. Jane says hello and everyone takes a seat, with Jennifer a few feet behind the right shoulder of the visitor. The conversation starts, and Jane signs as she speaks. When it’s time to listen, Jane will look over at the interpreter, a few inches away from direct eye contact with the person who’s actually doing the talking. People tend to speak clearly to her because they know it has to be translated. Then they’ll stop, and there’s a delay before Jane starts to reply, because it takes a moment for the signing to catch up.
Those who know she’s deaf are awestruck. “She’s my hero,” says the senior director of alumni relations, Karrie Manson. “She’s the strongest person I know.”
But in person, nobody ever really mentions it. Instead, students out on the quad seem to have more to say about Jane’s personality. She’s awesome. I adore her. She’s great. She’s enthusiastic. Passionate. She’s made a big impact.
If her deafness isn’t always top of mind, it always seems to be near the top of her biography. A Guilford College press release announced her hiring in 2014. The words “who is deaf” punctuated the second sentence. Jane is OK with those words, but she wishes they weren’t so prominent. “To pull that one thing out, ‘who is deaf,’ as if that’s the most important thing, I don’t necessarily think that’s true,” she says. “But I don’t wish it were gone.”
Jane has found herself as someone who straddles the line between the hearing and the deaf worlds, but not completely fitting into either one. A certain situation still makes her uncomfortable. She’s spoken to big groups before, both hearing and deaf. Usually the audience is exclusively one or the other. Sometimes, it’s not. People are accommodating, sure, but they have a preference. Those who can hear would rather hear her talk out loud. People who can’t hear would prefer she didn’t speak, and concentrate instead on signing. “I don’t know that anybody has so much stress on them about whether to use a voice,” Jane says.
It’s been a long journey. Jane spent nearly two decades feeling like an outsider in a hearing world, then rose to the top of the deaf community before being cast out in a viciously public spectacle. Only now, at age 58, does she feel like she’s finding her true voice, on a campus grounded in Quaker tradition, in a place for the hearing that also puts a solemn value on silence. “Here at Guilford College, I think that I can be whoever I am. There will be multiple ways I can use my voice,” she says. “And because I’ll be using it the way that’s most authentic to me at that time, that’s a powerful voice. That’s a real voice. It’s me.”
• • •
Jane was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the first of five children. Her family didn’t know she was deaf until she was age 3 or 4. It didn’t come as a surprise: Her mother was deaf. Later, one of her younger brothers would lose his hearing. A problem with the nerves, said a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Runs in the family. Can’t be fixed.
So, just like her mother, Jane had to learn to read lips and form words she’d never heard. The letters B, M, and P were hard to tell apart. The lips pucker in the same way. Without sound, they look troublingly alike. Her mom taped pieces of paper to objects in the house, their titles written out phonetically. Table. Chair. Cup. Handle. Glasses. Jane would have to sound out the words. “I had to learn English, even though I had never heard it,” she says. “It was a huge challenge.”
At a painstaking pace, she would eventually get it right, sounding out the subtle differences between Paul, mall, and ball.
Over time, Jane’s speaking voice developed, sounding much different from the thick Boston accent of her father and brothers. She got good grades. She fenced. She played the piano. “I got her into ice-skating, and she was extremely good at the figures,” says her father, Richard P. Kelleher. “But when they put music on, it became kinda comical, because she couldn’t hear it.”
As a student at Trinity College in Connecticut, Jane fell in love with French. Her parents were worried. What would a deaf woman do with a degree in French? Jane dove in anyway. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. “It was more about being in charge of what I could and couldn’t do.” She read books. She went to Paris. She got the degree.
For her master’s, Jane moved on to comparative literature in French, Italian, and English at the University of Iowa. Her roommate was working at a VA hospital, and started taking American Sign Language (ASL) classes to help communicate with the growing number of veterans who’d lost their hearing. She decided to go to a deaf club, and asked Jane if she wanted to come along. “I was not interested in ASL,” Jane says. “I was interested in getting out of Iowa City. She had a car.”
More than 300 people were at the American Red Cross building in Cedar Rapids, all silently using sign language. “You’re deaf?” they asked incredulously. Jane was an outsider. But she wasn’t treated that way. “That was a life-changing time for me,” she says. “My path changed because of that.”
On weekends that followed, Jane took a Greyhound bus to deaf club gatherings in places like Des Moines, Sioux City, and Waterloo. She stayed with deaf families. She found out that she was entitled, by law, to have an interpreter in her classes. She went on to earn her doctorate, writing her dissertation on ASL storytelling in Iowa. A few years before, she had no idea that the deaf world existed. Now, she was immersed in it.
Her family was, too. She got married and had two children, who could hear, but who also learned to sign fluently. At age 2, her son Sean was the only hearing child in his preschool. He knew English and ASL, but still spoke both languages like a toddler. Once, he meant to sign, “Where’s Dad?” But kids often have trouble with that sign, a splayed-open hand on the forehead. Sean’s fist was closed. “So he came out and said, ‘Where’s stupid?’” says Jane, smiling. “We still have that on film.”
After Iowa, Jane went on to professorships in Boston and Washington, D.C., then served as the director of a school for the deaf and blind in Honolulu. In 1995, Gallaudet University hired Jane as a vice president, and within five years, she had become provost. The school is the only college in the world that caters every class, program, and activity to the deaf and hard of hearing, and has become the de facto flag bearer of the deaf community. For more than 100 years, the school had a hearing president. But in 1988, students led a sweeping movement, “Deaf President Now,” which concluded that a university for the deaf should have a leader who’s deaf. They got their way, and I. King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet.
Seventeen years later, Jordan announced his retirement, and the board of trustees unanimously selected Jane to replace him. Immediately, the protests started. Students blocked entrances to the campus, forcing it to close. Dozens were arrested. Someone burned a cardboard effigy of her. Jane hoped to make Gallaudet a more welcoming place for students who, like her, were more comfortable communicating through lip-reading and speaking. But a strong contingent of staff and students felt that ASL should be the only form of communication on campus. Using a voice, to them, might move Gallaudet away from a place where silence was valued just as much as education. To many, it was no longer good enough to simply have a deaf president.
Jane hadn’t learned to sign until she was in her 20s, which meant ASL wasn’t her first language. “I have a clear accent,” Jane says of her signing. “It’s obvious that I’m not native.”
“Deaf people tell me my hands are not crisp,” she says. “My hands are too flexible or too loose.”
The attacks became personal. “She doesn’t really feel us,” one protester told the The New York Times in 2006. “She’s very critical of deaf culture, because she married somebody who hears.”
Two weeks later, Jane and the trustees agreed. She would not be president.
“It’s concerning that an accident of birth was a qualification for that kind of position,” she says. “But that’s what they thought. And they did get their way.”
Jane presides over Guilford College’s 2015 graduation ceremonies. photograph by logan cyrus
During her first week as provost at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2008, Jane found herself at a donor breakfast. People were speaking. Nobody else was deaf. She felt the way she had growing up: able to make her way as someone who didn’t need to be able to hear to live in a hearing world. “Everything about me wasn’t about being deaf,” Jane says. UNC Asheville embraced her.
In April 2013, a professor at Guilford invited her to his class to speak about deaf culture. Afterward, he pulled her aside. Guilford’s president was retiring. She should apply. Jane hadn’t even thought of it. Guilford was a Quaker school. Jane wasn’t a Quaker. And if she wasn’t deaf enough for Gallaudet, what if she wasn’t hearing enough for Guilford? “We can make it work,” he said.
A year later, she accepted the job.
There’s something else, a small detail that’s a big thing at Guilford College, a tradition that goes directly to one of the pillars of Quakerism. You’ll notice it if you go to class or a meeting on campus. A moment of silence is held. The meaningful pause imparts focus, meant to draw one closer to God. For Jane, “There’s no change for me.” She lives in silence. But for Quakers, the silence is seen as a source of power. “People here actually want to be the way I am a few times a day,” she says.
Finally, after years of living in another world, Jane’s in a place where people are exploring what it’s like to live in hers.
Jane and alumna Nicole Cline discuss Nicole’s studies of Quakerism. photograph by logan cyrus
Whenever Jane has some free time, she and Nicole Cline get together. Nicole is an alumna continuing her Quaker studies, and she can hear. But she’s doing her very best to use ASL, a language she taught herself. Jane tells the interpreter she won’t need her for a bit.
“What’s happening?” Jane asks and signs.
“My … paper’s … not … good …” Nicole says, laughing as she choppily signs back.
They talk about the essay, about the best way to write commentary. During a particularly fact-dense explanation, Nicole isn’t sure how to say what she needs to say with ASL.
“She reads lips very well,” Nicole jokes, “but she makes this really hard on me.”
Nicole pushes through it, and then Jane understands, and then Nicole tells Jane something she’d never heard about one of Guilford’s founders, and Jane’s eyes widen, and both slide into a rhythm of questions and answers, forgetting about how they’re talking, and focusing instead on what they have to say.
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