Students at Gallaudet University have pulled off a string of victories that amount to a civil rights revolution for the deaf -- at least for deaf students.
Elisabeth Ann Zinser, bowing to student demands, has left her president's post after less than a week on the job. The board of trustees has chosen a deaf president -- I. King Jordan -- to replace Zinser, and another deaf person to replace Jane Bassett Spilman as board chairman.
It won't be surprising if the newly militant students start making headway on their final demand: that the 20-member board, only four of whom are deaf, be reconstituted to have a deaf majority. Comparisons with the civil rights movement are all but irresistible.
But if what is happening at Gallaudet is reminiscent of some of the 1960s civil rights victories, the comparisons still need to be drawn with care.
Southern blacks who won access to the ballot, to places of public accommodation and to other basic civil rights did so by defeating their enemies: racists who wanted to preserve their own unfair advantage. The Gallaudet students' victories required the defeat of their friends.
I'm reminded of the retort of the late Malcolm X to the prediction of a top official of the NAACP that there would, in the next 50 years, be a black president of the United States. Said the witty Malcolm: the NAACP has been around 50 years, and it hasn't had a black president yet.
It was true, but not because the whites who had led the NAACP board were the enemies of blacks. The fact is, it had simply seemed a good idea, to blacks as well as whites, to have as president someone capable of bridging the gap between the black and white worlds.
That's pretty much what had gone on for 124 years at Gallaudet. Clearly Zinser, whose resignation was delivered with admirable grace, was no enemy. The same thing is true, though perhaps less clearly, of Spilman and the other hearing members of the board. (All but one of the hearing members who voted in the earlier presidential selection process voted for Zinser; the three deaf members who voted -- the fourth was himself a finalist and couldn't vote -- voted for Jordan.)
What is happening at Gallaudet evokes another memory of the civil rights movement: the emergence of "black power." What happened then was that black activists took the position that while whites could help in the struggle, they would no longer be permitted to run it.
Some Gallaudet trustees must be reacting now as some whites did then: with feelings of outrage and betrayal. But the fact is that, just as it was time for blacks to assume command of their movement, it is now time for the deaf to take charge of their own flagship educational institution -- even if it means wresting control from their friends.
Zinser, to her credit, came quickly to precisely that understanding. There comes "a time in the history of a population," she said, when they have to take charge of their own fate. What is happening at Gallaudet, said Zinser, is a "civil rights movement in history for deaf people . . . a very special moment in time for the deaf community."
That same realization may have come harder to Spilman, because she had come to be painted as the embodiment of the now-discredited missionary attitude toward the deaf. At one moment, she was the personification of public-spirited concern for the deaf; at the next, she saw herself being burned in effigy by those she was committed to serving. What would the abolitionist John Brown have felt at being burned in effigy by the blacks on whose behalf he was later martyred?
But the Gallaudet movement is not about Spilman. It is about the emancipation of the deaf. I think Spilman finally came to see that.
As for the rest of us, I hope we will take care not to overdraw the lessons of this contretemps. It is still dangerous business for students to exercise veto power over the selection of faculty, administrators and trustees. It still does not follow that every service for every special population must be administered by a member of the client group; few would advocate that blindness should become a sine qua non in the selection of a skiing coach for the blind or that a mentally handicapped person be put in charge of a sheltered workshop.
Deafness may yet turn out to be a more serious handicap for a Gallaudet president -- in fund raising, in advocacy, in forging links to the hearing world -- than the triumphant students believe.
But the results so far are the right ones: not because students ought to be in charge of their universities, but because March 1988 at Gallaudet is, as Zinser came to see, one of those "very special moments in time for the deaf community."
Call it the emergence of "deaf power."