Gallaudet University’s world-renowned history in higher education for deaf and hard of hearing people stretches back 159 years. Ever since its founding, this unique institution has been at the center of advances in deaf research as well as the deaf community’s struggles to claim their rightful place in society. Its academic goals have evolved over time to address the shifting needs and expectations of students and faculty. The current emphasis — on innovative course offerings in an ASL/English bilingual environment that set students up for success beyond campus — helps Gallaudet remain a vital and vibrant center of learning. Here is a chronicle of the major developments in recent decades that have shaped the university’s aims and structures.

A proud tradition

The Gallaudet community has long been at the center of the movement for deaf self-determination and advocacy.

Pioneering research in the 1950s and early 1960s by noted linguist and Gallaudet professor Dr. William Stokoe and deaf colleagues Carl-Gusaf Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline affirmed to the world that sign language is a true language, containing complexity, structure, and syntax – not a form of pantomime, as it was commonly regarded by linguists at that time. Croneberg and Casterline received honorary doctorates from Gallaudet University in May 2022 in recognition of their seminal work; Stokoe received his in May 1988.

A true cultural shift took place in 1988, when the Gallaudet community, joined by deaf people and their advocates around the world, rose up to protest the university’s hearing-dominated leadership. The Deaf President Now movement succeeded, and Dr. I. King Jordan was named the first deaf president of Gallaudet.

After Dr. Jordan completed his term on December 31, Dr. Robert Davila, former vice president of Gallaudet’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center and assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, stepped in to lead the University while a new presidential search could be held. Chemistry and physics professor Michael Moore was appointed interim provost.

A redefining moment

In June 2007 Gallaudet was placed on probation by its accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) for non-compliance to their Standards, and began a long journey to reaffirm its prominence as a global leader. The following month, communications professor Steven Weiner was named provost. In October 2009, Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz became Gallaudet’s 10th president after holding the position of president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of eight colleges within Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. The probation was lifted in 2010.

The University’s resolve in proving its incomparable value in educating deaf and hard of hearing people led to its most recent re-accreditation in 2013, maintaining the continuous accreditation status it has held since 1957. Dr. Weiner led the University’s Academic Affairs division until stepping down in July 2014. He was replaced by Dr. Carol J. Erting, who had served as associate provost for research and dean of what was formerly called the Graduate School, Continuing Studies, and International Programs.

In January 2016, Roberta J. Cordano, Esq, who had held the positions of assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota and assistant dean at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, became the first deaf woman president of Gallaudet. With her appointment came a commitment to transformational leadership that she calls “Our Presidency” – a re-envisioned role with a rejuvenated emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, innovation, and American Sign Language (ASL)-English bilingualism.

A period of transition

From the time of her appointment as provost, Dr. Erting demonstrated great enthusiasm for making Gallaudet’s academic offerings more multidisciplinary in nature. Her efforts began to yield results soon after President Cordano came on board to lead the University.

Examples of initiatives that broadened opportunities for students include the Gallaudet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, which opened in 2016 to infuse entrepreneurial principles into courses across the curriculum. A TinkerLab, complete with fabrication tools and a digital imaging studio, was established to promote creative, entrepreneurial, and interdisciplinary collaboration among students, faculty, staff, and others from communities outside the University.

Another golden opportunity for creative and artistic expression came the following year when Pigmental Studios, creators of animated and educational content for feature films and television programs by such luminaries as Disney, Dream Works, and Pixar, established its new headquarters on the Gallaudet campus. That year, 18 Gallaudet students were introduced to the working concepts of animation storytelling, and helped develop an episode for the popular CBS network action-drama television series, “Silver Scorpion.”

To encourage more students to be global stewards, the Peace Corps designated Gallaudet as a partner school and established Peace Corps Prep, a certificate program for undergraduate students that prepares them to apply for Peace Corps service after graduation. Seven students have completed their certification to date.

Elevating a stellar community of researchers

Thanks to her noted passion for research, Dr. Erting initiated the Gallaudet University Research Expo. The three-year initiative by the Provost and the University’s Academic Affairs division that began in March 2016 recognized efforts and accomplishments in research by undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff members, and promoted dialogue about the indispensable role that research plays in the University and the deaf community. The theme for the kickoff Expo was “Reshaping Our Vision,” to reflect the increasing diversity of Gallaudet’s research community, and the University’s research priority setting process. The activities included a panel discussion, “The Research Lens: Deaf Lives” by veteran Gallaudet researchers as well as a presentation, “Communicating with External Funding Program Officers,” by Dr. Amy Sussman, a program officer in the National Center for Special Education within the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Dr. Mark Leddy, program director in the Division of Human Resource Development within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation, and Dr. Katja, Zelljadt, director of the Office of Challenge Grants at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Future researchers in attendance also gained valuable lessons from another presentation, “Responsible Conduct of Research,” by the Office of Sponsored Programs, a campus program that supports Gallaudet faculty and staff seeking internal and external funding for projects that benefit the University community. The full day of events also included Four-Minute Scientific Presentations by student researchers, a poster session, and campus unit exhibitions.

Gallaudet celebrated its emphasis on research with a second Expo in March 2017 on the theme, “Promoting Partnerships and Collaboration Between Faculty and Student Researchers.” This Expo explored not only the value of student research, but also the critical role faculty play in the mentoring process, resulting in new learning for faculty and students alike. It included faculty panel discussions on ways to promote partnerships between faculty and student researchers, the value of mentorships to develop the next generation of empirical researchers, and multiple perspectives on expanding the University’s pool of knowledge through collaboration.

The final Expo,“The Value of Interdisciplinary Research,” was a two-part event that commenced in October 2018 and concluded during the 2019 spring semester. The first component focused on the critical need to offer student researchers opportunities to gain knowledge and expertise by partnering with seasoned faculty and staff researchers. It included a series of workshops on various techniques students could use to best showcase their studies during the 2019 Expo — videography, infographics, research poster design, presentation skills —plus undergraduate and graduate student researchers were able to rehearse for the presentations they had prepared with faculty advisors.

Laying the Foundation for Restructuring Academic Affairs

In 2010, the University implemented an academic program restructure to streamline its academic program offerings under the purview of a 14-member Program Prioritization Task Force (PPTF), the Administrative Programs and Services Review Committee, and the Task Force on the Restructuring of the Division of Academic Affairs. Over a seven-month period, close to 100 undergraduate and graduate academic programs were analyzed using a set of common criteria for recommending growth, monitoring, restructuring, merging, or discontinuing. Ultimately, 17 programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels were discontinued, beginning with the 2012-2013 academic year.

Much of this refining was achieved through consolidating programs. For example, the Department of Art, the Department of Communication Studies, the Department of Theatre Arts, and the Dance Program of the Department of Physical Education and Recreation became a single entity known as the Department of Art, Communication, and Theatre; and the Department of Biology, the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and the Department of Mathematics combined to become the Science, Technology, and Mathematics (STM) program.

This consolidation made space for the creation of a few new specialty programs.
The STM program initiated a new degree program in public health that reflects current trends and rapid growth in the field, namely, global health, behavioral and community health, and environmental health to prepare students for employment in high-demand occupations. Gallaudet’s Business program, a consistently popular major for the University’s students, also broadened by establishing a new major and minor in risk management and insurance to prepare students for careers in the financial services industry. The program was enhanced by the Maguire Foundation, which offers $5,000 scholarships to as many as five promising juniors for up to two years; to date, more than 46 students have received these scholarships.

Reflecting today’s heightened awareness in African and African Deaf studies, Gallaudet established a Center for Black Deaf Studies as an academic discipline and is taking steps to create multicultural Deaf Studies centers. Already, the Center for Black Deaf Studies and the Center for Deaf Health Equity (CHE) have joined to submit a grant application to support Black deaf people’s cancer care, and CHE is managing a contract with the state of Rhode Island to gather health care data for their deaf health project.

The Gallaudet Promise

When President Cordano arrived on campus, she instilled a sense of excitement in the community with what she called The Gallaudet Promise, a pathway to transformation in five areas. One of these areas, “Academic Reimagining,” sets forth a vision, strategy, and infrastructure to support robust and sustained enrollment.

The directors of general studies and institutional research implemented an academic program review/self-study of the general studies requirements (GSR) in 2018. At the final Research Expo, an opportunity was given to address restructuring Academic Affairs. Roundtable discussions involving approximately 100 faculty, students, and staff took place, focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to the complex challenges Gallaudet faces to ensure that all children who are deaf and hard of hearing have access to early language acquisition from birth to age 5, and that Gallaudet students have access to an interdisciplinary curriculum delivered using ASL/English bilingual pedagogy and digital adaptive courseware.

Soon after, faculty officers called for a meeting with program chairs to begin a dialogue with faculty about the possibility of restructuring. The same year, Provost Erting attended a conference hosted by EAB, an organization that helps schools from the kindergarten through college levels improve in the areas of enrollment; student success; data and analytics; institutional strategy; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The conference, led by David Attis, managing director of research for EAB, inspired Erting to think about the limitless possibilities for transformative change that Gallaudet was capable of achieving. She arranged two EAB presentations in 2019 for faculty and administrators to learn more about restructuring and narrowing the focus of their work. Students were also asked for feedback about what they envisioned for a new academic structure.

These conversations across the campus community allowed further exploration and refinement about – and reactions to – the idea of restructuring. By fall of 2019, the University Faculty’s Executive Committee, in tandem with Academic Affairs’ senior administrators, shared a call for proposals with faculty to restructure academic programs. Twelve were submitted and reviewed, with many faculty espousing a core schools concept. Based on these submissions, a first draft of a plan for an interdisciplinary approach centered around five schools was developed and shared in January 2020 during Faculty Development Week.

An arduous task realized

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, there was talk about postponing a vote by the faculty on proceeding with the restructuring. It was ultimately decided to proceed, for the good of the University, starting with the election of the five school directors. After 10 meetings with faculty constituencies to answer questions, address concerns, and solicit feedback, the final proposal calling for academic programs to be grouped within five schools was endorsed by the University Faculty in March 2020, and accepted by the University the following month.

Dr. Erting stepped down as provost in June 2020, and Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a faculty member in Gallaudet’s Department of Counseling for more than 35 years, replaced her as interim provost, ably carrying forward the restructuring plan that had been put into motion.

The new, revitalized Academic Affairs debuted in August 2020 with 30 undergraduate majors (including a self-directed major), 33 minors, and 25-plus graduate majors. Elected as school directors were: Arts and Humanities, Dr. Roberto Sánchez; Civic Leadership, Business, and Social Change, Professor Emilia Chukwuma; School of Human Services and Sciences, Dr. Daniel Koo; Language, Education, and Culture, Dr. Helen Thumann; and Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health, Dr. Caroline Solomon. The school directors, along with Dean of the Faculty Khadijat Rashid and Interim Provost Lewis, comprised the Academic Affairs Implementation Team (AAIT). The goals of the restructuring were student engagement (early interaction with the faculty, post-graduation outcomes, career pathways, and the student experience); recruitment and retention of students; and curriculum changes.

Another important development that took place in tandem with the restructuring was updating Gallaudet’s Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs). From fall 2007 to spring 2021, Gallaudet had five SLOs for undergraduate students to represent the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they should acquire to successfully complete their studies: Language and Communication, Identity and Culture, Critical Thinking, Knowledge and Inquiry, and Ethics and Social Responsibility. Effective for the 2020-2021 academic year, the General Studies program was renamed General Education, with a new Core Curriculum integrating learning through Experience, Explore, and Engage components. General Education revamped the University’s learning outcomes to better reflect the needs of 21st century learners. The new SLOs: Bilingualism, Career Readiness, Critical Thinking, Digital Awareness, Ethics, Global Citizenship, Science Literacy, and Wellness were also implemented in 2021.

The academic restructuring was designed to be a five-year process, with the first and second years (AY 2020 – 2022) focused on the implementation of the five schools. It was decided to keep all 16 department chairs during the first year to support program functions while allowing for the transition to the five school directors. During the summer of 2021, the department chairs were phased out and replaced by program coordinators for each academic program within the five schools. The school directors started to work closely with program coordinators within their schools. It was during this time that Gallaudet reopened after 18 months of being fully remote. It was a challenge for everyone to return to campus, safeguard the health of the campus community, and support the new academic structure implemented during AY 2021-2022. In AY 2022-2023 the five schools started moving towards an assessment of the effectiveness of the new structure.

Year three of the academic restructure saw the implementation of the Program Discontinuation Review Committee to address the need to reallocate resources to support our more robust majors and to develop new programs that are designed with the current job market in mind. The senate executive committee resumed regular meetings with the Interim Provost, the Dean of the Faculty, and the Interim Dean for Academic and Career Success and began to discuss the need for a comprehensive assessment of the new academic structure. This included determining whether various academic programs were housed in the appropriate schools, whether the five school structure was adequate to support academics, and how to create a proposed interdisciplinary liberal studies major that would allow smaller programs to close their majors and provide concentrations, badges, and certifications that could be used to meet the requirements for a B.A. degree in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies.

These efforts represent the role every individual at Gallaudet University takes seriously: being a steward of a distinctive, unparalleled place in the world of higher education. It reflects the responsibility and resilience of the community in working together towards achieving common goals to ensure that Gallaudet continues to be the Number One choice for deaf and hard of hearing people to be educated, and to celebrate their history and culture in a vibrant bilingual community where everyone is valued and supported on their journey toward a successful, fulfilling life.

The Path Forward

Our Gallaudet Path includes realizing our three priorities and three imperatives within the Gallaudet Promise. This will be based on what we have learned since the creation of the five schools in 2020, and is vital to the success of our students, who are our future. Looking ahead to the next five to ten years will provide greater clarity in how we can continue to support and grow academic excellence within Academic Affairs, which in turn impacts upon the greater community. The next Provost will be tasked with creating and implementing the Gallaudet Path, starting in AY 2023.

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