Today it seems routine that a deaf man leads the pioneering university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the nation’s capital. But a quarter-century ago at Gallaudet University, that notion was revolutionary.
Deaf President Now, a massive student uprising in March 1988, drew global attention to the campus in Northeast Washington and in general to the cause of advancing equal opportunity for the deaf.
Protesters in what became known as DPN demanded that Gallaudet’s trustees reverse their decision that month to name a hearing educator as president and instead name the first deaf president for the school since it was founded in 1864.
Trustees initially resisted. But DPN won.
On Tuesday, the three presidents who have led the university since then — all deaf — gathered for a forum as Gallaudet began its commemoration of the 25th anniversary of a pivotal movement.
“DPN has opened all sorts of doors,” said T. Alan Hurwitz, Gallaudet’s president since 2010. “It was certainly a breakthrough for the deaf community.”
Hurwitz was joined by I. King Jordan, who was president from 1988 through 2006, and Robert R. Davila, president from 2007 through 2009.
Established under a charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet was led for more than a century by educators who could hear.
By early 1988, there was a sense on campus that it was time for a change. The ranks of deaf scholars who held doctorates had grown to more than 100, according to a history of the movement on the Gallaudet Web site, and there were numerous deaf people in senior administrative posts at various educational institutions. Deaf advocates saw no reason the university could not be run by someone who was deaf.
On March 6 that year, the trustees announced that they had chosen as president Elisabeth Zinser, an administrator from North Carolina who could hear, over two other finalists who were deaf.
Protests gripped Gallaudet for days. Students blockaded campus entrances, marched to Capitol Hill, boycotted classes and staged rallies, joined by growing crowds of sympathizers from around the country.
Jordan, one of the finalists, initially supported the selection of Zinser. Then he reconsidered. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m deaf. I better start behaving like a deaf person,’ ” Jordan recalled at the forum. “So the next day I stood and made a statement supporting the students.”
Zinser withdrew, and the trustees reconvened. On March 13, 1988, Jordan was named president.
Jordan said the biggest challenge of his tenure was simply to succeed in the job — overseeing university operations, raising money, securing congressional support. If he hadn’t been able to do that, Jordan said, “People would look and say, ‘See, deaf people are not really ready.’ ”
The legacy of the protests, he said, helped him enormously in the job. Before 1988, Jordan said, people often responded “Gall-uh-what?” when he mentioned the university.
“After DPN, people knew Gallaudet. I didn’t have to bring up the story. They knew the story.”
The university, which has about 1,600 undergraduate and graduate students, receives $118 million a year in federal funding. It has faced various challenges in the years since DPN, notably upheaval in 2006 over who would succeed Jordan. Trustees that year chose Jane K. Fernandes, a Gallaudet provost who served under Jordan, to become president. But they revoked her appointment amid another student revolt.
Protesters called Fernandes a divisive figure and the process of her selection flawed. Fernandes, who was born deaf but grew up speaking English and learned American Sign Language as an adult, said her critics had a narrow view of what it took to be a leader in the deaf community.
Davila, eventually chosen to succeed Jordan, was credited with restoring calm to the campus. There were no protests when Hurwitz, former head of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., was named president.
Now students and faculty, in a series of lectures and panel discussions, are reflecting on events in 1988 that began a quarter century of deaf leadership at Gallaudet.
Derrick Behm, 21, a senior from Rochester who is deaf, said he grew up in an era when deaf people had more academic and career options than ever. “I’m here right now, getting an excellent education,” Behm said. “It seems to me the world benefited a lot from DPN.”