Inquiry Called for in Case of Press Coverage of Gallaudet University

Share Article is hereby calling upon the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) to conduct an internal inquiry to uncover facts relating to recent revisions made to a CHE article focusing on current educational changes occurring Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf. An online article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 16, 2007 has been revised for its printed edition of October 26, 2007. However, the revisions made are unsatisfactory and should be reviewed for possible breaches of journalistic standards and should also be reviewed for possible retraction of said article. Both the original article and its revision contain errors which pose significant detrimental social consequences as they relate to the education of the deaf. is hereby calling upon the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) to conduct an internal inquiry to uncover facts relating to recent revisions made to a CHE article focusing on current educational changes occurring Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf.

It is well known that Gallaudet has recently engaged itself in efforts to improve its mission statement and upgrade the quality of education it provides its students. An alteration in the headline of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article implies that the thrust of the original online version of the article was significantly flawed. The original headline stated that: "A Year After Protests, Gallaudet Sees Progress, but Key Dispute Remains." The phrase "Key Dispute Remains" was deleted for the headline of the print version. The new headline reads: "A Year After Turmoil, Gallaudet Sees Progress and Problems."

The thrust of the original online version of the article (which also remains in the new print version) hinges on the reporter's interpretation of a remark made by an accreditor who visited the school and called on the university to investigate whether sufficient numbers of prospective students would wish to enroll in the university to "pursue a bilingual education." The reporter was not able to get clarification from the person who issued the remark in order to determine its exact meaning, but instead, the reporter structured the original article around his (generalist's) interpretation of it.

In matters pertaining to the field of the education of the deaf, generalists who write on educational matters could easily find their background to be insufficient to the task of unraveling complex issues pertaining to the field. Outsiders unfamiliar with the nature of American Sign Language (ASL) are likely to misunderstand the true function of ASL within the deaf community and its related educational community. Indeed, linguists themselves did not begin to understand the linguistic nature of ASL until the 1960's and '70's.

Particularly confusing are instances when a hearing person signs (with the hands) while speaking English (with the voice.) This is referred to by linguists as being "sign supported speech," and in no way shape or form does it exemplify actual American Sign Language. Actual ASL cannot be accompanied by spoken English. This sort of signing/speaking is monolingual in nature, i.e., it is monolingual English. Sometimes a deaf person might use this kind of sign language while carefully mouthing words, without making vocal sounds. Others times a deaf person might use signs in English order without mouthing the words. Research now shows this type of signing to be ineffective in the educational setting, as hearing teachers who use it tend to focus on their own voice and not the signs. The signing then becomes telegraphic and hence non-communicative, and the deaf students are then unable to follow the teacher's (or professor's) lecture.

Actual American Sign Language is communicated with the hands, without voice, and is strictly visually based with no accompanying sounds. It is never possible to sign ASL and speak English at the same time. The grammar of ASL is unique and is in no way based upon the grammar of the English language or any other spoken language. It is complex and rich, and a Deaf person using it is capable of expressing any type of abstraction, from the simple to the highly complex.

Typically, a Deaf person using ASL will borrow English words by spelling the words on the fingers, much like an educated speaker of any spoken language might borrow words from a different language (e.g., Latin or Greek), but such type of "fingerspelling" is not typical of the majority of signs used in ASL per se. A Deaf person signing ASL who borrows particular English words, is doing such within the grammatical context of ASL and is said to be "signing in ASL" (just as a hearing person who speaks English and borrows an occasional French or Latin word is said to be speaking English.)

With all these complexities in mind, consider the situation of the accreditor who visited Gallaudet and made the comment that the university should verify whether sufficient numbers of prospective students would want to "pursue a bilingual education" at the university. Not only are there complex language issues involved in interpreting such a statement, but the phrase "a bilingual education" is potentially ambiguous.

In one context, the phrase "a bilingual education" would simply denote the fact that two languages are used at the university in question, English for reading and writing, and ASL for lectures and spontaneous conversations. (Sign supported speech and signing in English order are extra complications to be considered, but each fall under the English category.)

The existence of this first context, the general bilingual context of the school, is completely uncontroversial, especially since the recently deposed president-designate made remarks supporting such. A visiting university accreditor might make the mistake of not realizing that such a state of affairs is uncontroversial, and might make a remark which would then be regarded as being tangential and immaterial. It is highly unlikely that the president of the university for the deaf in question would relay such a misguided remark in a letter to the campus community as being anything which would be of any real concern.

If the president of the university for the deaf relayed such a comment by an accreditor (as had recently happened in the case of Gallaudet) the remark itself would almost certainly relate to a more specialized context, in this case, the context being the fact that Gallaudet is now requiring students to take specialized ASL classes and also be tested periodically in their level of ASL fluency. A remark by an accreditor in such a case would not be a case for grave concern. Such type of remark would certainly not be justification for an entire article in a major academic publication being imbued with alarmist implications, as in the case of the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article mentioned above.

In the worst-case (and unlikely) scenario, if it is determined that such a program as is now being offered would not attract enough students to enroll in the university (and hence not please the accreditors), then the program itself could be discontinued with little fanfare and such discontinuation would be of a secondary nature which would not affect the primary (general) bilingual context of the university.

Apropos the topic of journalistic standards and this case, consider the instance of an interviewee, the deposed president-designate, who has a definite history of taking advantage of the limited time factor involved in reporting (with its deadlines)--and also the limitations of the generalist reporters' knowledge bases--and who makes misrepresentations deliberately calculated for political effect. Inflammatory remarks emanating from such an interviewee would have the effect of swaying the direction and thrust of the article in ways which would significantly compromise accuracy and objectivity. Should the generalist reporter be thusly swayed, the ramifications would be large, especially as it pertains to educational issues involving a class of people, the deaf, who have experienced real suffering at the hands of opportunists in the educational field, such opportunists being, in this case, three professors who might (and should) be undergoing the scrutiny of a tenure committee and facing the eventuality of adverse decisions being made by such type of investigational body.

"Should an editor intercept such inflammatory language in a quotation in an online version of the article and give it a softer re-interpretation in the form of an indirect quote for the print version," says Gallyprotest representative Brian Riley, "Such modification should not be seen as a clarification, but should actually be seen as being an act of journalistic non-neutrality and editorial interjection posing as fact."


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