Op-ed: Dealing With Gallaudet's Diversity Problem

How will the campus community at Gallaudet University recover from its diversity rift?

BY Mike Deninger Ph.D.

January 16 2013 6:15 AM ET

Angela McCaskill

The controversy surrounding Angela McCaskill, Gallaudet University's chief diversity officer, has been smoldering since September. McCaskill was placed on administrative leave from the Washington, D.C., school for the deaf and hard of hearing for signing an anti-marriage equality petition at her church in the state of Maryland. Although the situation initially received considerable media attention, much of it was focused narrowly on McCaskill as a victim.

As the argument against her went, her role at the university required that she foster positive diversity outcomes among student and staff, and signing a public petition designed to undo the civil rights awarded legislatively to LGBT individuals gave the impression of her bias against this group.  

She and her attorney, on the other hand, argued that her actions were protected speech, and she merely believed that important questions such as this should be decided by voters. This reasoning does not pass muster. It ignores the clear intention behind a signature on that petition: to prevent the implementation of marriage equality. The petition McCaskill signed was successful and forced a referendum in November that could have repealed marriage rights in Maryland (the ballot measure was defeated on Election Day, and marriage equality is now state law).

On January 7, after four months of silence, with faculty and students still on winter break, Gallaudet president T. Alan Hurwitz announced that McCaskill had returned to her duties. He thanked the campus community for their “overall maturity” and for their “willingness to consider the differing views others may hold.” He also wrote that diversity work at the university was vital and he personally looked forward to working with McCaskill. The communication does not address what triggered the brouhaha.

When conflicts like this flare up between marginalized groups, it can be messy. Seen more positively, conflict can also become valuable “grist” for the diversity mill. Important lessons can be learned. There were many victims in this unfortunate series of events. The matter is larger than race, religion, or homophobia, and it reveals the complexity of diversity efforts and the potential hazards that exist for those who lead them.

Arguments on both sides of this storm have merit, but the more pressing point is this: How will Gallaudet students and employees recover now that McCaskill has returned to her position? She was reportedly well-liked and respected on campus prior to this incident. Unfortunately, LGBT rights advocates will now observe her words and actions through a fractured lens. It’s like Romney’s “47%” — a private attitude has been revealed, and trust must be reestablished. It may not be easy now that months have passed and lawyers have been involved. But both sides must have known the healing of this wound was not going to happen in court.

Now it is up to McCaskill and the Gallaudet administration to creatively reengage campus groups and recover from the messiness.

I’m no stranger to deafness or diversity work. I am a white, gay, hearing male, fluent in American Sign Language, who worked for 25 years at Gallaudet; as an academic administrator for 13 years. During my tenure as a dean, our division developed the first diversity training programs of any significance at the university more than 25 years ago. When I think about the suspicion, distrust, and vitriol caused by these latest events, I’m reminded of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies frank discussions of audism (discrimination based on hearing status), racism, sexism, and homophobia. I know how deep an individual has to dig to admit a bias, to overcome prejudice and stop discrimination. It requires “higher-level” attributes that are difficult to promote in a hot-tempered environment.

It has pained me to see well-intentioned professionals at Gallaudet locked into intractable positions around this issue. I know all the players. I believe each of them deserves respect. Each side has been accused of intolerance. It must have been hard for President Hurwitz to decide what to do when faced with a complaint that the actions of his diversity officer appeared intolerant. It must have been equally difficult for McCaskill to be accused of bias, a charge that impugned her integrity and threatened her livelihood. She is an African-American deaf woman who has certainly experienced discrimination based on her race, deafness, and gender. The complaining faculty members — one deaf and one hearing — are both lesbians and white. They undoubtedly have experienced discrimination based on their own identities.

But imagine what it was like when LGBT students at Gallaudet first saw the signature of someone they admired, the diversity officer of their university, affixed to that antimarriage petition. McCaskill’s actions may have felt like a betrayal to them. At the least, they must be struggling to resolve conflicting thoughts and feelings about the events, an unfortunate distraction from their studies. And I wonder if McCaskill didn’t also feel betrayed when her signature on the petition was reported and she was asked to explain her actions.

We all bleed when wounded. Often our first instinct is to secure our borders and hunker down for a siege. But we can also choose to heal by engaging in an open and sincere dialogue.

The latter is what is needed at Gallaudet. What has happened on campus reflects the tenor of our times. Have we not learned that the struggle for civil rights always finds its way into our classrooms? Isn’t that the way it should be? The situation at Gallaudet is serious, not hopeless, but resolving it will require an enlightened healing process, one that demonstrates diversity principles at work.

My intention was to end this piece with the previous sentence, but something was missing. The file sat untouched in my computer for weeks. Then the ending came to me in a poignant set of events:

My story transpired in rural Virginia. I needed a haircut. I’m particular about who cuts my hair, so I googled “barber shops” in the area and came up with a list of three choices. I picked the one that sounded most like a man’s place — where you can get a clean buzz cut, a shave, or a mustache trim, and the conversation is about RG III and the Super Bowl.   

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