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USF faces angry reaction to rumored changes in its sign language major

The backlash culminates in a protest and calls for more transparency. University officials say they’re listening.
Students and members of the hearing impaired community gathered Feb. 17 on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus to protest possible changes to the school's interpreter training program.
Students and members of the hearing impaired community gathered Feb. 17 on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus to protest possible changes to the school's interpreter training program. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 21|Updated Feb. 21

A recent series of messages has led to confusion and turmoil concerning the American Sign Language Interpreting and Deaf Studies program at the University of South Florida, one of two schools in the state to offer a four-year degree in that field.

Nathan Maxfield, interim chairperson in USF’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, sent out an email on Feb. 11 saying he was sorry to announce the program would be closing.

“The decision was based on a combination of factors, which I will not attempt to summarize here,” he wrote, adding that the move would have a “significant negative impact on the deaf community in addition to impacting our colleagues.”

His message said little other information was known but that current students would be able to finish the program.

The email led to a widely circulated Facebook post, an online petition that received more 13,000 signatures from people across the world and an emotional four-hour protest last week on the Tampa campus.

Julie Serovich, dean of USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, listens to Katryna Arias speak during the Feb. 17 protest over possible changes to the university's interpreter training program.
Julie Serovich, dean of USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, listens to Katryna Arias speak during the Feb. 17 protest over possible changes to the university's interpreter training program. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The program’s dean and associate dean fielded heated questions and listened to testimonials from members of the deaf, hard of hearing and interpreter communities about the importance of interpreters. The crowd of more than 100 included the president of a statewide association for the deaf, a Clearwater family with a deaf child and 4 million TikTok followers, and dozens of alumni, students and faculty members.

University officials responded, saying a recommendation had been made to cancel the major and make those courses part of another program, but that it has not been approved yet. The statement did not comfort students, alumni and others who said it appeared the changes under consideration would water down USF’s offerings in the field.

The chain of events echoed the messaging that occurred in 2020 when USF announced plans to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education, a decision that drew widespread backlash and later was reversed.

Maxfield, the interim chairperson who sent out the original email, did not respond to requests for comment, and the university later said the message was inaccurate.

The university released a statement attributed to Julie Serovich, dean of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

“As part of USF’s annual process to review the productivity of all majors and degree programs, the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences planned to recommend discontinuing the major, in part because a bachelor’s degree in the field is not a necessary credential to become a certified interpreter,” the statement said. “However, the college’s proposal was not submitted to or reviewed by university leadership, who would have to approve of terminating a major.”

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Discussions about the change started because of an error in the way the major was coded in the USF system, Serovich said in an interview. At some point, they proceeded to talk of terminating the major due to a number of factors, she said.

The program for interpreters has existed in some capacity for 40 years at USF, and is not going anywhere, Serovich said. If anything, she said, she would like to see more interpreters in the community.

American Sign Language and deaf studies has existed as a major at USF only since 2020. Prior to that, it was a concentration under the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, which many of the protesting alumni had graduated with.

“There will always be an interpreter training program at the University of South Florida,” said Serovich, who conveyed a similar message in response to emails from concerned alumni.

Still, many alumni saw the talk of potential change as a sign the university was not in tune with the needs of the community and called for more transparency.

“The narrative has evolved and we’re being told the program is not closing but we’re also being told a four-year degree is not necessary,” said Sarah Serralta, an alumna who started the Facebook post calling for action. “Would you want a doctor who studied culinary science or a doctor who studied medicine? ... It’s more than just having command of a language.”

Interpreters play a key role in the program, which has served as a feeder across the region and state. The Hands On USF program, for example, offers students the opportunity to gain experience in K-12 schools and other programs.

At the protest Thursday outside USF’s Marshall Student Center, many spoke of the value interpreters brought to their lives — from going to medical appointments to being able to participate in classes.

One protester brought an adopted child who didn’t gain access to language until she was 6 years old after going to a Hillsborough County public school that had interpreters. Others spoke of being the children of parents who were hard of hearing.

“It’s access to life,” said Eli Keila, an English and linguistics major.

Keila spoke of growing up deaf in one ear. As a child, he said, he didn’t have the ability to advocate for himself. He got in trouble in school, had difficulty making friends and struggled with mental health issues. Getting rid of interpreter programs, he said, would impair the ability of deaf people to succeed.

Kelvin Gonzalez communicates to Julie Serovich, dean of USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, during a Feb. 17 protest over possible changes to the university's interpreter training program.
Kelvin Gonzalez communicates to Julie Serovich, dean of USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, during a Feb. 17 protest over possible changes to the university's interpreter training program. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“Deaf people have not been looped in, just like people in power making decisions for people who are not,” he said. “The best case scenario is still a step backwards. USF has a moral responsibility to protect this program.”

The university’s decision-making should take into account the people most affected, said Nicky Macias, who graduated from the program and is a graduate assistant at Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington D.C.

“USF is a public university,” Macias said. “Regardless of how they try to brand themselves, they really should be putting the public first.”

The protesters pressed Serovich to sign a document saying that “no changes or action will be taken until we meet again.”

Serovich said she was grateful to hear their stories. Conversations will happen before any decision is made, she said, and will include faculty and members of the deaf community.

USF is still accepting applications for students interested in the major who wish to enroll for the summer or fall semesters.

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