After 122 years of providing a liberal arts education for the deaf, Gallaudet College has admitted the first four students with no hearing problems to its regular undergraduate program in the fall.
The decision to take a limited number of hearing students into a program that has long been deaf-only prompted a strong campus debate with arguments and emotions similar to those at single-sex or one-race schools that have turned coeducational or integrated.
At Gallaudet's graduation yesterday several students said they now felt the change would be for the better, but acknowledged that they and many others had feared the loss of a "comfortable" place of their own.
"I think having some hearing students will give us more of a challenge," said Stacia Barron, a graduating senior from Iowa. "At first many students didn't really want hearing people here. They were afraid that the hearing people might take over things like the student government and that the opportunities for deaf people to participate might be reduced.
"Opinions have changed," Barron continued. "But I think when the hearing undergraduates get here maybe it will end up being two groups socially like the graduate students are now."
At yesterday's commencement, 112 deaf students received bachelor's degrees in a modern field house on the college's 99-acre campus on Florida Avenue NE. Also awarded were 98 master's degrees, three doctorates and nine associate degrees, most of them given to students with normal hearing for studies dealing with the deaf.
The number of bachelor's degrees awarded to deaf students at Gallaudet has gradually slipped from a peak of 170 in 1982, as many other colleges, prodded by federal laws for the handicapped, have enrolled more deaf students. Meanwhile, Gallaudet's other programs have been steady.
For the past three years undergraduate enrollment at the school has surged with children born deaf after their mothers contracted rubella or German measles while pregnant during an epidemic in the mid-1960s. That "rubella bulge" group, for whom the college acquired a second campus on Kalmia Road NW, is expected to be gone by 1990.
The decision to admit undergraduates with normal hearing was adopted by the university trustees last fall as part of a new master plan that said the school must accept "new constituent groups" to maintain its enrollment and quality.
"The fact that Gallaudet has shifted in recent years from being the 'only' to being one of 'many' options for deaf students is a matter of great concern to the college," the plan declared.
Yesterday Gallaudet President Jerry C. Lee said the number of undergraduates with normal hearing will be limited at present to 8 percent of the undergraduate enrollment of about 1,200. For the first year all of the hearing students must have completed at least two years at other colleges and major in fields related to deafness such as education and psychology. Lee said they will have to learn sign language, which is used in all Gallaudet classes.
Although hearing students with less college experience may be admitted in the future, Lee said Gallaudet would continue to restrict them to deafness-related programs and not permit them to enroll in the business and computer courses that are popular with deaf undergraduates.
Even this, said public relations director Donna Chitwood, marks "a major change in the philosophy and focus" of the undergraduate program, which traditionally has provided a standard liberal arts curriculum for deaf students rather than teaching about deafness.
Gallaudet is the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf. Although it is an independent, nonprofit corporation, it receives about 80 percent of its funds each year from a special federal appropriation, similar to the funds provided to Howard University.
This year Gallaudet's appropriation is $62 million, including about $20 million for elementary and secondary schools it operates on its campus for about 600 students.