I. King Jordan, the man who for 17 years has symbolized the rights, the abilities and the strength of deaf people, announced yesterday that he will step down from the presidency of Gallaudet University.

"It's the end of an era," said Andrew Phillips, one of many students who crowded into the auditorium for Jordan's announcement. People stood waving their hands in the air, fingers wiggling, or clapping and hooting. Some wiped away tears.

Jordan, 62, was the first deaf person to lead the 141-year-old school, the only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing people in the world and a cultural center of the deaf community. When a hearing president was named in 1988, a deaf rights movement erupted. Students marched to the White House, the Capitol and the Mayflower Hotel, where trustees were meeting, and demanded change.

Many deaf people remember exactly where they were that year when they learned that Gallaudet would have a deaf president.

"Finally, the world heard us," Provost Jane Fernandes said. When people talk about watching that news on television, "to this day they get goose bumps on their arms."

This year's incoming freshmen were born into a society transformed by the Deaf President Now movement and the changes that followed: The Americans with Disabilities Act, which Jordan championed, protects people from discrimination on the job and facilitates access to interpreters and other aid.

Since then, medical and technological advances have profoundly changed life for the deaf, easing integration into schools and workplaces and pushing some to ask: What should Gallaudet's role be now?

At noon yesterday, bright yellow leaflets were scattered across the Gallaudet campus: IMPORTANT MEETING TODAY! Classes were canceled, and by 2 p.m. students, professors and staff were hurrying into the auditorium as they signed to one another about what the news might be. After a tribute by board members, Jordan told the audience, "I know we're leaving Gallaudet better off than we found it."

"We love you, King!" a student shouted from the balcony, and many climbed on stage afterward to thank him for changing their lives and to tell him their memories of when they found out he had been named president in 1988.

Back then, many questioned whether a deaf person could lead the school and raise money, said Ken Levinson, a Gallaudet trustee. But during Jordan's tenure, the university endowment increased from $5 million to $150 million, and federal appropriations rose to more than $100 million a year. He improved the quality of the faculty, Fernandes said, increased academic rigor and added graduate degree programs in such areas as audiology and linguistics. Not long ago, many finished Gallaudet and could not get jobs. Now, 95 percent of graduates go on to careers or graduate school.

His most important legacy, though, is what he said when he took the job: Deaf people can do anything but hear.

"He was the representative of what we could do," student Anthony Mowl said through an interpreter, "so the world would know deaf people are -- normal. So I'm able to show people what I can do."

Jordan's era was one of unprecedented opportunities and of changing definitions of what it means to be deaf.

About the same time Jordan took office, cochlear implant technology was approved. The technology has improved to become standard treatment, said Bruce Gantz of the University of Iowa.

Most infants are screened for hearing problems, and in studies, Gantz said, researchers have found that babies given cochlear implants grow up speaking, developing language and learning to read just as their hearing peers do.

Some in the deaf community have fought those changes. They worry that deaf people might no longer speak a common language, that there would no longer be a deaf community.

"We understand where the deaf culture is coming from -- we're a threat to their culture," he said. Doctors don't want to wipe that out, Gantz said, but they do want to be able to offer the opportunity to hear.

These days, there's more middle ground, Levinson said; the years have tempered some of the anger in that debate.

At the same time, technology has removed barriers. Real-time videophones and the Internet make communicating easier than ever, and Gallaudet has been adapting to that as well.

Jordan will stay in office through 2006 to help oversee the search for his successor and, perhaps, the transition. When a student asked whether the next president would be deaf, he laughed. Not that hearing candidates won't be considered, he said, but. . . . Many students said it's unlikely that Gallaudet will ever have a hearing president.

As for the future of the university, he said the primary goal is to be inclusive -- diversity not only in skin color, income, ethnicity and disabilities, but in means of understanding and expression.

Five years ago, he never saw students using cochlear implants at Gallaudet; now they are commonplace. And although everyone uses sign language on campus, some students speak, too.

People spilled out of the auditorium yesterday with fingers flying and voices rising, signing and talking about the news, wondering how Jordan could be replaced.

"Technology is helping more and more deaf people hear," Jordan said, "but here at Gallaudet, we focus on learning and achieving -- not on listening. So I would still say deaf people can do anything, except hear."

I. King Jordan "was the representative of what we could do," a student said. He is credited with improving the faculty, academics and endowment.

I. King Jordan's daughter Heidi Ricker wipes a tear as he thanks his family for its support over the years.