Dear Members of the Gallaudet Board of Trustees

September 3, 2019

Dear Members of the Gallaudet Board of Trustees:

We write in the spirit of love and care for our Mecca, Gallaudet University.  Many of us are living that dream and in the same breath, living in fear that when we wake up, our dream will not be real any longer. We write to you anonymously with heavy hearts.

“Anonymously” is a negative word to most ethical leaders who have risked much to get to where they are because it means they have failed. Sadly, we are not safe to take the same risks, and we hope that you will view the fears we express here with appropriate concern. We hope that you will question why it is that a people who share common traits, being Deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, hearing and in a liberal arts higher education space, will be under the grip of fear within their dream space.

A space where they dreamt it to be safe to be, to connect, discover, and influence. 

We have connected. That connection is being severed by President Roberta Cordano through her management by intimidation, bullying, unprincipled, unethical and morale killing tactics and reign of terror that Faculty and their governance have already become extremely concerned and staff cowed into fearful silence. These concerns, when brought to her attention, she continues to find ways to dismiss and demean and exact vindictive results. The environment is now toxic.

These results include but is not limited to her recent Dean of Students decisions to circumvent the search process and unilaterally appoint an interim Dean and an Assistant Dean. Those of us who are connected looked forward to opportunities for merit promotions and appointments. Similar to what faculty has already alluded, when asked to explain her rationale, she resorted to MBI tactics. She looked directly into Gallaudet Staff Council (GSC) and Organization for Equity for Deaf Staff of Color (OEDSOC) Executives’ eyes in a threatening way and dismissed their concern. There were 7 members of staff in the room that day, December 10, 2018. Similar to faculty governance, GSC is a member of the university board approved shared governance system; OEDSOC was recognized by Presidents Davila and Hurwitz, but disliked and ignored by President Cordano. And, did you know, Dr. Davila adopted OEDSOC’s (then OEAA) 7-Point Plan for Diversity and Inclusion as the University’s own. Cordano’s decisions severed our connection to Gallaudet, leaving a bad taste in many mouths and because the way she dismissed their concerns was like “I dare you to raise it with me again”, some of it ended up on social media, Facebook. 

We have discovered. That the place we love so dear is not a place for some of us so long as we are a different breed of Deaf individuals and groups, especially Deaf staff of Color. We discovered that President Cordano has preferential Deaf staff and faculty of Color who she prefers to work with. The rest especially those who speak up, asks legitimate questions, or are spoken badly about by her favorites, become targets. The evidence for that is all over Facebook. We discovered that when something is said on Facebook about the Deaf community of color treatments from President Cordano, they are often true. 

What we thought we’d discover at our mecca was opportunities to contribute and fair and just career development and advancement but during Cordano’s tenure is instead the opposite. We are watching President Cordano not only target some hearing staff and faculty but continues to flaunt preferential listening and engagements. We discovered that President Cordano at several public meetings with our community demeaned professionals who have been at the university for a long time. We witness her publicly make statements and blamed long-term staff and faculty for morale.

We witness a tenured faculty member call her out on those behaviors publicly. Instead of the President mending fences, she went on a defensive and attack the community. We discovered that the faculty has been trying to make a case for change and often they are the ones who will mention staff. If not, the President doesn’t show concern for staff mistreatment but instead continues to stunt staff morale with bad and unethical decisions, circumventing processes and procedures, and bullying behaviors. We are fully certain that you are not aware of these behaviors because she only shows you what she wants you to see and not the truth about how she has been destroying the university spirit. 

We have no influence. Without influence, we cannot bring about change. Change is an involvement process not an exclusion process. Change happens when a community feels that they have influence on leadership, decision-making and action through an inclusive process. She continually exerts her positional influence at meeting and events where she should listen. 

Examples:

1.      8 weeks into the job, she and Paul Blakely, who are both white, led a mini-workshop for President’s Office staff. Cordano said to them “it must be hard for you to serve 2 masters”. All the staff at that time were Black people. She resisted Paul’s attempt to make her understand the weight of what she said. It is not a surprise that all of them are no longer working in the President’s Office. 

2.      Faculty member Jennifer Nelson spoke about low employee morale during a GSC town hall on March 6, 2019. Bobbi immediately retorted that the low morale is due to crab theory syndrome on campus and anybody who doesn’t like it can leave.

3.      She tried to cheat a student who groomed her hair by sending her to the Finance Office for payment. The Finance Office refused to process it. We are not aware that the university is responsible for covering the cost of Bobbi’s haircuts and personal grooming. If you cannot be ethical in small things, how can you be ethical in big things? This episode is well-known all-over campus.

4.      When GSC and Organization for Equity for Deaf Staff of Color (OEDSOC) leadership questioned the rationale for her foisting Eyob Zerayesus as assistant dean on the Dean she also imposed on the community (Travis Imel) instead of Travis to advertise and interview to fill the vacancy on December 10, 2018, she said that her decision to appoint Mr. Zerayesus was to address OEDSOC complaints of marginalization in promotions (partly true), that there may not be qualified or recommendable Deaf Staff of Color to contest for the position on merit (not true), and “what if the wrong people apply?”. So therefore, there are people who she thinks are “wrong”. What is not clear is how or why they are “wrong”, who or what decides they are “wrong”, whether they are “wrong” for her or “wrong” for Gallaudet. Where does that leave the Human Resources process for screening out unqualified applicants and what is the impact on EEO’s job to ensure due process? Her reply destroyed the last shred of her credibility. 

5.      There are too many cases of bullying and publicly yelling at and humiliating members of staff to mention. The only person who seems able to control her outbursts is her chief of staff, but the ethics surrounding her hiring is questionable. Those who have tasted the red-faced yelling even include members of her cabinet. The president of Gallaudet University is an unmitigated bully. 

6.      Students assessed how she interfered with the Dean of Students hiring process as “cheating” and called it a bad model for leadership. It means that Travis Imel is seen as a privileged white male who gained from a white president’s cheating. Because he is interim, Bobbi will be desperate to find or even invent a reason to justify her interference and prove herself right so that she can make the appointment permanent. 

7.      How she hired Heather Harker sent a corrupt “you hired me, now I’ll hire you” vibe. She had two non-Gallaudet employees on the interview committee beside her, hired consultants who would do what she recommended because she was the one paying their consulting fees.

8.      In less than 4 years, Harker’s salary more than doubled to over $300K. How is this justified amid cuts, layoffs and forced retirements? 

9.      The most recent employee survey resulted in only a 5% or so response rate from faculty/staff. What does that tell us? People are frustrated, disillusioned, don’t feel valued, and think there is no value to even participate.

10.  Look at the results from the 2019 Student Satisfaction Survey which shows overall satisfaction with Gallaudet at 25%. The buck stops at the President’s desk.

11.  She not only invests heavily in consultants but goes against university policy by having university paid staff report to consultants. She only wants to spend $400,000 on staff development while she spends millions on consultancy. These monies should be allocated for staff and faculty training and development to build expertise and prepare for incoming students who are Deaf with Disabilities. 

The climate is very toxic now that when we enter the campus in the morning to work, our hearts begin to pump faster inside our chests not because of excitement but like “what new thing will she do today?”

We have limited influence, our connection is severed, and our discovery is disappointing. We are Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing models to the people we have worked with on campus and the students we serve to the best of our ability for decades. But to Roberta Cordano, many of us are the wrong people, for whatever reasons, except that her reasons aren’t legitimate and can’t pass the ethics test. Her words and actions in her office alone should give you pause. 

The examples we have shared above are only a small sampling. There are so many more. But we give these examples at great professional risk to some innocent people who were there or were part of the story when these incidents occurred. 

We ask that as members of the Board you ask yourselves these questions: 

What would you do if you were a staff member at Gallaudet living these experiences? We ask about staff because majority of faculty are tenured and to their credit, they express similar concerns for staff.

Would you send this letter to the Board with your name knowing the ugly repercussions the vindictive Bobbi Cordano will certainly visit on you? Or would you send it anonymously as a last resort to plead urgently for help?

Would you take the examples above in addition to the attachments as evidence at face value or would you launch a high-powered inquiry, and invite EEO and members of the University faculty and staff leadership groups (University Senate, GSC, OEDSOC and the Faculty of Color Coalition, FOCC) to share their and their members’ stories?

Would you consider reviewing the climate survey results, which we know has been negative since her tenure and begin a process to heal Gallaudet’s spirit which is created by the people who see and treat her as a mecca? 

We conclude anonymously not to disrespect, spite, or seek revenge but to ask you to look into it. We are anonymous for obvious reasons: our job security, our families, and the long-term spirit of the mecca. We write anonymously because we care about what President Cordano is doing, which led to the President’s Office staff “jumping ship” at a pace that shocked the entire community. Because when they left, the President’s Office lost approximately 150 plus years of combined knowledge and skills. Of the people she replaced them with, one left after 6 months, he only took a leave of absence from his federal government job and may have seen things which were not proper, and the other one left after only 4 days. Cordano is toxic and likely to tear Gallaudet down to its foundation before she is stopped by the Board of Trustees. A future successor will have to restore confidence and morale and rebuild from the ground up.

Finally, we write anonymously and leave you with a powerful poem:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We use this powerful poem to send a message to the Board about Roberta Cordano’s leadership that has alienated not only faculty and staff, but some students, especially students of color. One staff who retired reluctantly after more than 30 years said, “I hope the Board does something soon before the damage she wreaks becomes too severe for the next President to fix.” We believe only those who care deeply for Gallaudet will make that statement. Please do something before she does more damage. Please step up and get new, trusted and ethical leaders who will do right by every employee and student at Gallaudet to lead this University responsibly into the future. 

We write anonymously because we care and are concerned members of the Gallaudet community. We hope you will take these concerns to heart, listen and take action before it is too late.

Finally, we ask the Board to help us re-connect, re-discover, and influence change in ways that will rekindle Gallaudet spirit.

Sincerely,

Seriously Concerned Members of the Gallaudet Community