WASHINGTON -- Turmoil doesn't intimidate Stephen Weiner.
In April 1977, as a 22-year-old fighting for disability rights, Weiner rallied 300 silent protesters to stage a 12-hour sit-in. His activism, in part, led to a landmark federal law that requires ramps and bigger bathrooms in buildings to accommodate people with disabilities.
Seven years later, Weiner was dean of students at the Texas School for the Deaf, charged with calming angry students and parents in the wake of a sex-abuse scandal.
Now the 52-year-old Anne Arundel County resident faces his greatest challenge: to restore the prestige of Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington, the nation's only liberal arts school founded to specifically serve deaf students.
Weiner starts work today as provost, or chief academic officer, hoping to steer Gallaudet from the brink of losing its accreditation. The school, which was declared "ineffective" in a federal report two years ago, was placed on probation by its accrediting body Friday.
One study showed only 42 percent of its students eventually graduate, and one in 10 of its bachelor's degree holders were employed a year out of school.
Further complicating Weiner's efforts are technological and medical advances that have made mainstream colleges and universities more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, leading critics to ask whether there is even a need for a Gallaudet.
Widespread student dissatisfaction was exposed last fall in protests over the selection of a new president.
Jane Fernandes was criticized for being unapproachable and "not deaf enough" because she only learned American Sign Language in her 20s. Classes stopped for three weeks and more than 100 students dropped out after the demonstrations, which revealed deep fissures in the deaf community.
The board eventually relented and revoked the offer to Fernandes.
"The protest was a long time coming," Weiner said through an interpreter during an interview at his Davidsonville home. "They were a blessing. The community - the faculty, students, and staff - was never fully made aware of the sense of urgency, the crisis at the school. I am not afraid of change."
Officials from the Department of Education were on campus in May after an Office of Management and Budget report last year that rated the program "ineffective."
Though the school's rating has since been upgraded to "adequate," evaluators cited a lingering concern: "Gallaudet failed to meet its goals or show adequate progress in key areas, including the number of students who stay in school, graduate, and either pursue graduate degrees or find jobs upon graduation."
The school of 1,800 students, 1,200 of whom are undergraduates, will receive $110 million from the federal government this year.
Deadline to improve
Gallaudet's accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, has given the school until November 2008 to raise its graduation rate and improve the employment track record of graduates.
"Part of the problem is we have been doing things at Gallaudet the same way for the last 50 years, and we can't let things stay that way," Weiner said.
A professor of communication studies, Weiner is known schoolwide for having close relationships with his students. Students described him as easygoing and fatherly, equally comfortable counseling them on careers, school and home lives.
His honors public speaking class for freshmen is among the most popular and his "lively" teaching style helped him attain "rock star status," student body government president Robert McConnell wrote in an e-mail.
"The Dead Poets Society had their John Keating (Robin Williams) ... But Gallaudet's Honors freshmen had STEVE WEINER," McConnell wrote. "His lively stories and logical explanations of the little mysteries of life brought ideas that we had formerly perceived as the domain of dusty theorists to vivid, vibrant life."
Weiner received a standing ovation at a student gathering in May when his promotion to provost was announced by President Robert Davila. Weiner had been among the finalists for the top post before Davila was chosen.
Even before formally taking his post, Weiner worked with Davila to name new deans for Gallaudet's three academic colleges. Weiner has asked the deans to find ways to meld English instruction with history and math and science to create a seamless liberal arts curriculum that emphasizes literacy and writing - a key weakness noted by a team of evaluators and a way to increase academic rigor amid complaints that classes had faltering standards.
Change in leadership
Weiner also has a new dean for enrollment, and created a new office for multicultural affairs that works more closely with the school's minority population.
The offices will work together, Weiner said, to stitch safety nets for students at risk of dropping out. They will provide extra support for students from low-income homes, or those who are first to attend college in their families, he said.
The effort to help first-generation college students is personal for Weiner, who was born deaf in Brooklyn, N.Y., to two deaf parents. He pushed himself to go to college after seeing his father passed up for promotions at a union print shop because he couldn't use the phone.
Weiner attended Gallaudet, receiving a bachelor's degree in history and master's in psychology. He went on to earn his doctorate in counseling and development from American University.
The new provost embarks on his reform of Gallaudet as technological and medical advancements threaten the relevancy of such specialized schools. With the help of cochlear implants and widely available sign-language interpreters, academically talented deaf and hard-of-hearing students can choose to attend mainstream universities and colleges. In fact, most do.
Gallaudet attracts only 13 percent of the deaf and hard-of-hearing high-school graduates who enroll in four-year colleges. Undergraduate applications to the school dropped from 758 in 2002 to 539 last year, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Education. Freshman enrollment also dropped from 351 in 2005 to 281 last year.
"If you were an investor, would you place a bet on that kind of performance?" said Jack Slutzky, a retired professor from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, who has emerged as a critic of Gallaudet. He says the school is "insular" because of its use of American Sign Language and disdain for mainstreaming and hearing improvements.
"Today, with mainstreaming, with better education, with early intervention medically to improve hearing, with technology enabling students who've never heard a note to replicate a voice - the idea of 'be with your own kind' is archaic," he said.
Weiner, who has a broad grin and jovial demeanor, said Gallaudet still works for students who want to be seen "as a person first, deaf second."
"They don't have to worry about communication barriers here, going through an interpreter," he said. "They can directly interact with the professors and students, who see them for who they are."