"Deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world" is what Gallaudet University's Board of Trustees chairperson Jane Bassett Spilman is reported to have said the night that Elisabeth Zinser was selected as president. She long denied she ever said such a thing and contended that she had been misunderstood by her interpreter. Regardless, it became the impetus for many of the students, faculty, staff, and alumni to protest because they felt Spilman had lost touch with the campus.

A granddaughter of the Bassett Industries founder and wife of its president and CEO, Spilman served on Gallaudet's Board of Trustees for years but never learned to sign. She became the focal point of many of the DPN protesters anger. A popular refrain seen and heard during the week was "Spilman, learn to sign: 'I resign!'"

A reserved woman, she was frequently characterized as paternalistic and unknowledgeable about deaf culture, although many board members also described her as hard-working and dedicated.

Spilman resigned from her capacity from her role as chairperson of the Board of Trustees and from the Board entirely on March 13, 1988, one week exactly after the protest began. She called her continued presence on the Board "an obstacle to healing."