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[Meet Jane Fernandes]

UNC Asheville’s new provost A consensus builder, she deftly navigates the hearing and deaf worlds as she champions the liberal arts

by Jill C. Yarnall

Burt Holmes

Jane Fernandez at home in her garden with husband, Jim.

Provost Jane Fernandes, not surprisingly, is a great lover of books. One of her favorites is the best-selling French autobiography The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:

A Memoir of Life in Death. Its author, former Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, was stricken with Locked-In Syndrome. Though mentally sound, Bauby was left paralyzed, with movement only in his left eye, writing and editing the book by blinking the alphabet. He chose the diving bell to represent his “locked in” physical body and the butterfly, his active mind.

“My mother, who is also deaf, taught me how to speak … every time I made a little progress, she would say, ‘Jane, that’s very good, and you can do better.’ I think that the university today is very good and it can be better.”

—Jane Fernandes, UNC Asheville Provost

The symbolism is fitting for the university’s new provost. Words float around her like so many butterflies. They are perched in her extensive book collection. They drift off her lips and land gracefully on her hands as she speaks. Deaf since birth, Fernandes communicates in spoken words and American Sign Language (ASL). Yet even when speaking to a hearing audience, her hands are in motion as she signs the words. She learned ASL while in graduate school at the University of Iowa, when her roommate, a hearing student, was taking an ASL course and invited Fernandes to a deaf-club meeting. There she was introduced to a vibrant deaf community that taught her ASL. The new skill changed her life in ways she couldn’t imagine.

“That experience shifted my career path,” said Fernandes, age 52. “Before learning ASL, I suspect I would have become a translator, working with languages. Sign language opened new doors that led me to become a university faculty member, a department chair and eventually an administrator.”

Fernandes, who started work July 1, is the only deaf provost in America serving at a predominantly hearing university. As UNC Asheville’s chief academic officer, she is responsible for 67 departments and programs and a budget of $27 million. Her desk is equipped with a video phone for telephone calls, and like all administrators she relies heavily on e-mail. An expert lip reader, Fernandes also uses an ASL interpreter for large meetings. Because colleagues and students shift out of their usual communication style when relating to her, she said, her deafness brings advantages. “I know it’s important for me as provost—but also as a person—to ‘hear’ and understand what people are saying. My process of ‘listening’ carefully may help other people do the same.”

Prior to her arrival on campus, the Human Resources Office offered two monthlong ASL classes for faculty and staff who wanted to learn the basics and gain a better understanding of deaf culture. When she heard both classes were filled to capacity, Fernandes took it as a campuswide commitment to inclusion, a high priority she holds as provost. “When I was growing up, my mother, who is also deaf, taught me how to speak and pronounce words. It was very hard, but every time I made a little progress, she would say, ‘Jane, that’s very good, and you can do better.’ I think that the university today is very good and it can be better,” Fernandes said. “I hope to help make UNC Asheville better by creating a more welcoming environment, especially for students who have been marginalized, particularly students of color as well as different races, ethnicities and abilities. There is a great will on campus to become more welcoming of diversity, and I hope to push that will into greater reality.”

She would like to see UNC Asheville continue to attract outstanding students, hire more top-notch faculty and staff, strengthen the curriculum and broaden the degrees and programs offered, and create a stronger culture of evidence to measure the university’s successes. “We will be talking quite a bit about how to establish a culture of evidence on campus—an integration of assessment in our work—so that we know better how well we are doing in and out of the classroom. Then we can make changes in our programs that the results demonstrate,” she said. “The first step will be for the university to agree on a set of learning outcomes that we want all students to reach before they graduate. Once we have those, we’ll align the Academic Affairs Division, departments and courses with the outcomes. It will be exciting work that will help the university show concretely why we believe so strongly in the liberal arts.”

From an early visit, Fernandes became convinced of UNC Asheville’s dedication to hard work and collaboration. As she walked across the Quad, she observed the annual Reading of the Names by students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends to honor those who died in the Holocaust. Touched, she said, “It showed fantastic commitment, and is the kind of activity that links learning and doing.”

She also expects challenging questions. “One student asked me how I would create an academic calendar where no religion is given preference. That really surprised me because it showed a seriousness and commitment from students, which I like very much,” she said. “Ultimately, when I thought about his question, I realized that if we really honored all the religions represented on campus, we probably would never have class.” As she tells this story, she laughs heartily. With this ready laugh and a warm smile, Fernandes has already become known on campus for her great sense of humor. “I try to keep a positive attitude and having humor helps us see truth.”

Not that Fernandes is one to back down from complex problems. She has successfully navigated the hearing world throughout her life. She attended public schools in Worcester, Mass., and earned a bachelor’s degree in French and comparative literature from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. She holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Iowa. After directing the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and Blind, she served six years as provost at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s premier liberal arts university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. In 2006, she was tapped as president of Gallaudet by the Board of Trustees, but some students, faculty and members of the deaf community disagreed with the appointment. Protests erupted and the story made national headlines, marking a flashpoint in the complex culture of the deaf community.

“Protesters wanted to see a president with different characteristics than I had. Basically, I was not ‘deaf enough’ because I am able to move pretty easily between the deaf and hearing world. I speak English. I sign ASL. They really wanted someone who was more totally a member of deaf culture to represent them,” Fernandes explained. Eventually the board rescinded its offer and Fernandes stepped down. She was a senior fellow at the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute, founded at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, when she was named UNC Asheville provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in December 2007, following an eight-month national search. “I love the liberal arts and I love the university’s focus on the holistic educational experience. At Gallaudet being deaf was overriding. I am much more than that. So I am glad to be at UNC Asheville where I can be a whole person.”

When Fernandes is not at the office, colleagues and students might find her in the gym: she enjoys aerobics classes and lifting weights. She also balances time on campus and time at home with her husband, Jim, a retired communications professor, their teenage son, Sean, and daughter, Erin, who share their north Asheville house with two cats, one dog and lots of books. While waiting for shelving to accommodate 1,000 books still in boxes, she admitted to feeling out of sorts without her most important books at hand—those she turns to as touchstones and guideposts. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is clearly one such book because it reminds her of the importance of tenacity in life, which she applies to her new role as provost. “It challenges me to use all the skills I have and not focus on what I don’t have.”