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A Sense of Urgency at the Top

School’s New President Hasn’t Been Waiting on Ceremony

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

For a month after Robert Davila was named president of Gallaudet University in December, he didn’t leave campus. There was too much to do. He was taking on a school that spent much of the fall in chaos, shut down by protesters for days, venomously divided over the presidency. A federal agency had criticized the school for the deaf, and its accreditation was at risk.

Davila was 74 years old, with a grandfather’s warm smile and funny stories, but instead of retiring, he was launching into the toughest job of his life.

Robert Davila.jpgThe clock is ticking on accreditation, he said recently. “We have to do it, because, long term, the impact on the university is most serious. The consequences are too frightening to ignore.”

Today, Davila will be formally installed as president. And although the challenges are still daunting, the campus is already a different place from when he arrived.

A year ago, protests began over the selection of a president. Last fall, after building takeovers and arrests, the board terminated the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes, the former Gallaudet provost.

Davila, who is well liked on campus, wanted to rebuild trust and community, to get everyone invested in moving forward. He wanted to improve academic accountability. And he wanted to make sure enough students were enrolling and graduating.

The first thing he asked was how many students had left during the protests: about 100. In fall 2005, total enrollment was about 1,900; in 2006, about 1,800, before the protests. Enrollment is especially important for Gallaudet now that federal law ensures that deaf students can get interpreters at any school. That’s another reason that accreditation matters: Students have so many options.

Davila said he has made faculty members more involved in recruiting and retaining students and has strengthened a transition program for freshmen. Applications were down this spring. He said he hopes that in another year, the school will have regained lost ground.

Several professors said Davila has worked with faculty leaders to give them a stronger voice, including having them help choose the new provost, Stephen Weiner, an associate professor who was greeted with a standing ovation on campus Monday. Several professors praised Davila for working to solve problems rather than hide them.

“Davila is doing a great job,” said LaToya Plummer, a student and former protest leader, “taking things in his own hands and trying to get the community to work together.”

Davila has talked with students about issues that include their trouble communicating with campus security officers. Now officers will be required to know sign language and will have more interpreters.

Davila started regular video blogs, or vlogs, in sign language to update the campus on matters such as accreditation, which was postponed last fall by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. By November 2008, the school must achieve compliance with commission standards. It remains accredited in the meantime.

He is hiring someone to oversee institutional research, because the school has to prove that it is making progress.

He has critics, including people loyal to the previous administration. Some staff members said he has been too thin-skinned about criticism. But most people say he has made the place better.

He pulled a handful of pins that say “Team Gallaudet” out of his pocket the other day, rattling them around in his palm. When people ask to join, he kids them with a recital of the rules: “First, you are joining a team you can’t quit — you’re stuck on this team for life. Second, you have to do good things for Gallaudet. . . . Third, if you say anything about Gallaudet, and you have nothing good to say — say nothing.”

Almost no other university leader is being watched so closely and judged so much — by federal agencies, accreditors and by the deeply engaged and ever-blogging deaf community.

It is the timeline that worries him most. He took the job as an interim post, and he has a year and a half to reverse — or at least show positive trends in — decades-old problems such as graduation rates. “We don’t get rated for effort,” he said. “We get rated for outcomes.”

When he held an open meeting seeking volunteers to plunge into the issues, he expected 30, maybe 35. More than 150 signed up. Others have joined since. “I had to order a new set of pins,” he said.

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