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Gallaudet’s deaf presidents discuss impact of DPN

Image: President T. Alan Hurwitz makes a point during a February 5 panel discussion with former presidents I. King Jordan (second from left) and Robert Davila (right). The University's first three deaf presidents shared their insights on the impact of the Deaf President Now movement of 1988. Also pictured is panel moderator Dr. Brian Greenwald (left), professor of history and co-chair of a series of events recognizing the 25th anniversary of DPN. (Photo by Matthew Vita)

President T. Alan Hurwitz makes a point during a February 5 panel discussion with former presidents I. King Jordan (second from left) and Robert Davila (right). The University's first three deaf presidents shared their insights on the impact of the Deaf President Now movement of 1988. Also pictured is panel moderator Dr. Brian Greenwald (left), professor of history and co-chair of a series of events recognizing the 25th anniversary of DPN. (Photo by Matthew Vita)

In the first of a series of events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement, the University's first three deaf presidents shared their experiences and insights at a February 5 panel on the transformative changes and impact of DPN over the last quarter century.

Before DPN, all seven presidents who served over the course of Gallaudet University's history were hearing. That changed in March of 1988 when many people in the campus community and numerous off-campus organizations and individuals protested the Board of Trustees' decision to select Dr. Elizabeth Zinser, a hearing woman, as the University's eighth president. The groundswell of support for the cause brought national and international attention to Gallaudet and culminated with the board reversing its decision and naming Dr. I. King Jordan (G-'70), a deaf faculty member at the University and one of the finalists for the position, as president. It also led to a majority of the board members being deaf. Jordan served as Gallaudet's president until his retirement in 2006. Dr. Robert Davila (G-'53) followed in his footsteps as Gallaudet's second deaf president in 2007, and Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz became the third deaf president in 2010.

Jordan recalled DPN's domination of the media spotlight. It was on the front page of The New York Times for five days of the week-long protest, and the story was carried every day on the cover of The Washington Post. DPN also had a very positive effect on campus, he said, because it unified the deaf community behind a common cause. However, being Gallaudet's first deaf president carried challenges. "There was a lot of skepticism [about whether] I could succeed," Jordan said. "Every day I had to be successful."

Jordan said he shared his DPN experiences during his meetings with Congress and with potential donors to the University. "People loved the DPN story," he said. "People wanted to invest in deaf people."

DPN had further ramifications, as well. Jordan mentioned that the two Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sponsors, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), told him if it were not for DPN, the ADA law would not have been passed in 1990. "They said that the DPN kick started the ADA, and Congress paid attention. The nation paid attention," Jordan said. "There are people all over the country whose lives are different now than they would have been without the ADA."

Davila said that DPN broke the glass ceiling for deaf people. "It was very positive, and we were in a surge all over the country, the civil rights surge," Davila said. "It was changing the whole country in ways that people thought were impossible in reducing discrimination."

"Before DPN occurred, I never thought that I would become a dean or president," said Hurwitz, who served as both at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, as well as vice president and dean of the Rochester Institute of Technology prior to becoming president of Gallaudet. Under Hurwitz's leadership, Gallaudet has an ambitious strategic plan to broaden its legacy as the first choice in higher education for deaf and hard of hearing people. Hurwitz also informed the audience that the University's 10-year campus plan was recently approved by the Washington, D.C. Zoning Commission.

Jordan shared a story about how he had become accustomed to the media throwing him easy "puff ball" questions after he became president, but one day he was taken off guard when a reporter asked him, "With a college degree, what can a deaf person do with it? Thinking for a moment, he gave a reply that became his signature quotation: "Deaf people can do anything but hear."

More about the DPN President's Panel

The following DPN 25 events have been scheduled:

  • February 13: Board of Trustees' Chair panel
  • February 21: Julian Bond lecture: "From Civil Rights to Human Rights"
  • March 6: Benjamin Jarashow lecture: "The 7 Ducks: Behind the DPN Movement"
  • March 9: 4 DPN Student leader panel
  • March 12: Comparative Civil Rights panel
  • March 14: Lives Worth Living film screening
  • March 26: History of Women at Gallaudet and DPN
  • April 1: David Armstrong lecture: "DPN and the Struggle for Deaf Control at Gallaudet"
  • April 2: Tom Humphries lecture: "Our Time: The Legacy of the 20th Century"
  • April 9: Wilma and Bruno Druchen lecture: "International Perspectives on Human Rights"

--By Megan Clancy

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