Once in a great while, individuals, or even institutions, can have the opportunity to do something great, something that sets them apart. Washington's Gallaudet University, the only independent liberal arts college in the world for the deaf, has such an opportunity today.

When Gallaudet's president, Jerry C. Lee, submitted his resignation five months ago to take a job as an executive with a Fortune 500 company, a presidential search committee was formed; it has come up with six semifinalists, including three hearing-impaired candidates. There is a movement afoot on campus to urge selection of a deaf president. If one of the hearing-impaired candidates is chosen president, not only would it be the first time the university has had a deaf leader, but also it would send an important message to hearing-impaired people around the country: As they break barriers in the hearing world, the opportunity exists for them to become leaders at their own institutions.

In many ways, the timing seems perfect for Gallaudet to take such a step. The school and the status of the hearing-impaired have undergone significant changes in the past few years. Under Lee's leadership, Gallaudet has grown from a college to a university, a change that required an act of Congress. The school recently was ranked by college presidents across the country as the number one Eastern liberal arts college, according to U.S. News & World Report. Indeed, it's no overstatement to say that Gallaudet is the mecca of deafness: In its student body, the large number of deaf people it employs and its international reputation, the university is viewed as a political leader of the hearing-impaired around the country.

Furthermore, deafness has gained greater visibility and understanding among the hearing population in recent years. Beyond the national trend toward greater sensitivity to the handicapped, America cheered when Marlee Matlin, a hearing-impaired actress who played a deaf former student romanced by teacher William Hurt in "Children of a Lesser God," was named best actress at the Academy Awards last year.

But running a major university is not just a well-scripted role. A president needs leadership ability, academic qualifications, well-articulated overall goals for the university and public relations and fund-raising skills.

And let's face it -- on one level, a hearing-impaired person just won't be as "qualified" as a hearing person. That's because a hearing-impaired candidate, while showing strength and potential in many areas, would not bring as much experience to the job as a hearing individual who has had the advantage of greater opportunities. But a university like Gallaudet has a strong structural apparatus in place to buttress whoever takes the job.

And some would argue that if a specialized institution won't recognize one of its own kind, who will? What hearing college would hire a deaf president? Indeed, some would say, the invisible handicap of deafness carries with it a major barrier in society because it so often prevents the deaf from communicating with the bulk of the society.

The argument reminds me, in part, of the long struggle to get black women as presidents of black women's colleges. Just this past year, one of the oldest, Spelman College, hired the first black woman in its history -- Johnetta B. Cole. Just as Cole is a special role model for her students, so would a deaf president be a significant model for Gallaudet's 2,200 students and might even further sensitize hearing college presidents.

There really seems to be little risk involved in taking this step. What is really involved is the ability to see someone who is talented who could do a job as no one has had the opportunity to do before. Being a college president isn't only a matter of image; it's the substance that counts. We have a lot of politicians who make a nice appearance but say nothing and have no substance behind them.

But beyond that, Gallaudet hiring a hearing-impaired president would make a great statement to people who are handicapped throughout the United States, that disability will in no way disable them from attaining their goals and that our democracy is rich enough to afford the diversity. My own view is that from great institutions great things are expected. Wouldn't it be great if Gallaudet rises to the challenge?