Guilford College’s deaf president leads by listening

Jane Fernandes, president of Guilford College.
Jane Fernandes, president of Guilford College. Courtesy of Guilford College

Jane Fernandes speaks both English and American Sign Language fluently, and often at the same time – her fingers flashing along with her spoken words in seemingly effortless unison.

But straddling the worlds of those who can and can’t hear has sometimes been a struggle. As a child, she was taught to read lips and imitate the sounds of a language she’s never heard, and didn’t learn sign language until her 20s – a fact that became fuel for protests against her appointment as president of a college for the deaf.

Long an outsider in both worlds, however, Fernandes has found a home as president of Guilford College, whose close-knit community has embraced having the nation’s first deaf female president as its leader since 2014.

Ed Winslow, chair of Guilford’s board of trustees, says Fernandes is popular among students and has been able to navigate difficult economic times, with government support for higher education contracting and other market forces putting pressure on smaller colleges.

She has also led an effort to revamp the college’s focus to better fit the current landscape and draw in quality administrators. Winslow also credits excitement over her hire with a bump in enrollment last year.

“People are frankly inspired by her,” says Winslow, a Greensboro lawyer who has been on the board more than a decade. “We were confronting one challenge after the next and her response to that, her resilience and determination and creativity, was just extraordinary.”

Learning at home

Fernandes, 60, grew up in Massachusetts, one of a number of deaf family members. Her mother was deaf from birth, and her brother was hearing impaired.

Her mother undertook the painstaking process of teaching her to read lips and speak, as she had learned, rather than taking her to be taught with other deaf children. Fernandes says her mother had wanted to be a teacher and poured her efforts into her children.

“I had no idea what I sounded like, but she would always say, ‘That’s good, that’s better than yesterday, and I know you can do much better.’ It was all positive,” Fernandes says.

The end goal was to blend easily with those who could hear. Fernandes recalls being sent to the store with directions to purchase something without letting anyone know she was deaf. The message was clear.

“She was teaching me that’s it’s better to pass as hearing than to be deaf,” she says.

Fernandes was able to attend public schools, and she went on to study literature at Trinity College. She says she enjoyed science and math, but could not do well in those subjects without translators or other aids, which were not available at the time.

She often couldn’t follow class discussions, but she could earn her top grades through her writing. She fell in love with French and Italian and traveled abroad.

She was in graduate school when she encountered sign language for the first time by accident. Her roommate had been working with veterans who had lost their hearing and decided to go to a meeting of deaf people in Cedar Rapids.

Fernandes says she went along mainly because she hadn’t been out of Iowa City in a while. But the experience of meeting hundreds of people like herself was life-changing.

“I didn’t understand the words they were signing, but we all understood things visually,” she says. “On some gut level, we understood a lot.”

She started taking the Greyhound bus to Cedar Rapids on weekends, or to other meetings across the state. Other times she’d be invited into deaf people’s homes for weekend visits.

It also changed her career trajectory. She want on to Northeastern, where she taught sign language, and became a department chair. She worked at a deaf school in Hawaii, and later at the University of Hawaii.

Her next stop was Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf. She rose to be a vice president and provost and was chosen to be president in 2006. That’s when the backlash ensued.

The school is considered the capstone of a kind of deaf education that she never had. Student protesters noted that she hadn’t been to American Sign Language schools, or attended their leadership camps. Her hand motions weren’t crisp and were sometimes awkward. Her appointment was rescinded.

“I guess people there would say I’m not deaf enough,” she says. “I lacked legitimacy as a person leading the deaf community, but I knew I could lead a university.”

She became provost at UNC-Asheville, where she had good mentors, one of whom suggested that she apply for the president’s job at Guilford.

‘We are going to listen’

Fernandes first came to Guilford in 2013, invited by a sociology professor to give a presentation on her role in the deaf community. She says the college exuded a sense of welcoming.

“They had never worked with the deaf community, but they worked to include me,” she says. “There was a culture of acceptance that was part of their core values.”

The liberal arts college of about 2,000 students was founded by Quakers. It focused on the core values of that religion, among them equality and justice, even as its ties have become less formal.

Since coming to Guilford, Fernandes and her husband have converted to Quakerism. They attend a friends meeting near campus.

She says she was attracted to the tradition of starting important meetings with a moment of silence, a reverence for quiet that she found comforting, but also important during times of deep societal divisions.

“That’s when we all center ourselves and try to remember that we are going to listen to what others say and be open to the words of others,” she says. “I find that to be a very important strategy.”

Her key challenge leading Guilford has been to create a sustainable future for the college at a time when many smaller colleges struggle to attract and retain students.

Fernandes says part of her approach as a leader is to listen closely to students. The college recently did research among prospective students, and in response, established four themes around which to adjust its curriculum for the upcoming school year: learning collaboratively, teaming for success, ethical leadership and rallying campus spirit.

“We’ll ask students that are coming in, in your first year, what do you really want to study?” says Fernandes. “What questions do you have about the world and your role in the world? And our work as faculty and administrators will be motivated by those questions.”

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Jane Kelleher Fernandes

Born: August 1956, Worcester, Mass.

Residence: Greensboro

Career: President, Guilford College

Education: B.A., French and Comparative Literature, Trinity College; M.A. and Ph.D., Comparative Literature, University of Iowa

Family: Husband, Jim; son, Sean, and daughter, Erin

Fun Fact: Fernandes admits she loves to read “trashy detective fiction” in her free time.