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By T. Alan Hurwitz, President

More than 500 days have passed since I moved into House One and began my service as president of Gallaudet-more than 500 endlessly inspiring and surprising days that have made me and my wife, Vicki, grateful, above all things, for the opportunity to serve at our unique and wonderful university.

Gallaudet is truly a special place: at once it is a university, a family, a culture, a dream-and almost everything in between. Maintaining this uniqueness while moving confidently into the future has been our primary focus. I believe Gallaudet is succeeding in balancing our past with our future.

The notion that change needs tradition has been paramount to me as we have moved forward. Gallaudet’s evolution depends on its vibrant connection with a past inclusive of deaf culture and sign language; we cannot forget that past.

Our history is proof of this. Since our charter was signed by Abraham Lincoln 147 years ago, Gallaudet has been a force for evolving and improving not just deaf education but also how deaf people are viewed by society and how we all, deaf and hearing, view ourselves.

Here are just a few of Gallaudet’s remarkable accomplishments:

  • We consistently school the world about deaf culture.
  • We consistently re-educate the world about sign languages.
  • We consistently demonstrate to the world the capabilities of people who are deaf.

Through these achievements we make powerful and enduring statements about what it means to be human.
To give an example: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, was inspired in part by our Deaf President Now movement. In just one week in the spring of 1988, we as a community called attention to the broader issue of civil rights for all Americans. We stood up not only for ourselves, but for all of those who for years had demanded equal rights in the workplace, in housing, in public services, and in medical and legal settings. What we did as a community has benefited and will continue to benefit literally millions of Americans from all walks of life. It didn’t stop there. The inspiration for the current United Nations-driven global movement for access and education equality originated with the ADA.

Look at what we have accomplished in just 20 years: We have influenced international policy on the education of deaf children, on the civil rights of deaf people everywhere, and on the recognition of signed languages. But there is still work to be done.

You-our graduates and our faculty and staff-continue to work tirelessly for better education for deaf people and rights for deaf people around the world; you lead and inspire people from all walks of life. Our recent commencement speaker, Gary Malkowski, from the Class of 1984, embodies this activism. Dr. Malkowski, who was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by his alma mater, was Canada’s first deaf person elected to Parliament, and he continues to work for educational and vocational rights for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Another Gallaudet graduate, The Honorable Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, who was the University’s 2009 commencement speaker and also received an honorary doctorate, is the first elected deaf parliamentarian in South Africa. Incidentally, Dr. Newhoudt-Druchen is the general chair of the XVI World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf, being held in Durban, South Africa, July 18 to 24.

Another example: The Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) research project, one of six Science of Learning Centers in the country funded by the National Science Foundation, is changing how scientists and educators understand the acquisition of visual language and the origin of sign languages. In a testament to the center’s exciting research, we have attracted world-class talent to the project, and we look forward to its researchers and students continuing their groundbreaking work into visual language and visual learning.

Let me provide yet another example of how we are moving forward by drawing on our remarkable heritage: our new “Living and Learning” residence hall (LLRH) for which we broke ground last May. LLRH will incorporate an emerging architectural concept known as “DeafSpace,” which emphasizes sensory awareness, mobility and proximity, acoustics, and light and color treatments. LLRH will house a vibrant mix of residential, academic, and social spaces to foster lively interaction within a visually attuned environment.

The LLRH project was also the motivation to diversify our funding sources by entering the capital markets for the very first time when the university initiated a $40 million tax-exempt revenue bond issue. The proceeds from the bond issue will go to supporting the LLRH project and will fund an energy conservation project intended to keep Gallaudet in the forefront in creating a “green” campus.

It will also finance the upgrading of technology infrastructure systems and renovating residence halls, classroom buildings, geothermal utilities, parking garages and lots, and athletic fields. This bond issue represents Gallaudet’s continuing efforts to identify new sources of funding so that the university can retain greater control over its own destiny.

I believe that the LLRH will be a model for future developments-and not just at Gallaudet. Our goal is to be a global center for innovation and inspiration as well as the continued leader in deaf education. And our intent is to not only influence spatial awareness and research for all things related to deafness but to influence all of humanity with what we’ve already come to know and value in ourselves.

Creating opportunities throughout society based on ideas that originate from the deaf community requires the continuing involvement and cultivation of new leaders-many of whom will come from our own student body. Every day I am reminded that it is our job to ensure our future leaders are well-prepared and well-educated to meet their calling. Our students demand no less-and rightfully so-as they require the best resources in order to thrive in our world’s myriad new industries and to create new industries themselves.

And it’s not just industry that is changing: Through technology, the very ways in which we communicate and learn are rapidly evolving. To give one example: Our 2011 graduates proudly announced their accomplishments via Facebook and Facetime, smartphones and Twitter-none of which existed at their current levels of prominence when the graduates matriculated. Imagine what our incoming freshmen will be using at their own graduation!
It is with great pride that I share more of the events that have happened in just the first 500 days of my tenure at Gallaudet, and with the tremendous help and support of many of you in the University community:

  • We have initiated and are continuing with a restructuring of our academic, administrative, and services programs. This restructuring follows an intensive, data-driven, systematic review of every single program at Gallaudet. By identifying areas for growth or improvement, as well as for reduction or elimination, this restructuring leaves us better prepared for the demands of today’s deaf and hard of hearing students and will allow us to better compete with other universities for those students.
  • We have formed a new Task Force on Health Care Careers in collaboration with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and other institutions to help create better opportunities and preparedness for deaf students to enter careers in the burgeoning health care sector. This is an area in which we have long been under-represented as well as underserved. The task force is also examining how to maintain the linguistic and cultural rights of deaf consumers in medical settings.
  • We have started an aggressive campaign to place our students in Capitol Hill internships so that they may gain valuable professional experience, while at the same time introducing members of Congress and their staffs to accomplished deaf and hard of hearing individuals who demonstrate that the deaf perspective can have a profound impact on society.
  • We have seen The Preservation of the Sign Language, an historic, 98-year-old film produced by the National Association of the Deaf and preserved by the Gallaudet Archives, become part of the National Film Registry. We hope to continue with efforts to preserve and promote greater awareness of our cultural heritage so that future generations remember those who blazed a trail before us to ensure the recognition of sign language and the survival and evolution of deaf culture.
  • We have established a landmark University Council which is the forerunner of a shared governance concept that brings together students, faculty, staff, and senior administrators to meet and discuss critical topics and issues that concern the university.

All these changes leave us excited about what the future will hold, and better position us to adapt to a changing world and, indeed, to shape it. If the next 500 days are anything like the last, there are no limits!
And yet this change is only part of all that Gallaudet represents.

  • Gallaudet is our Student Body Government president giving a presentation on the National Mall to a standing ovation.
  • Gallaudet is an undergraduate student writer being invited to give a writing and philosophy lecture at prestigious Amherst College.
  • Gallaudet is me having the privilege of sharing lunch and conversation with students at the Marketplace.
  • Gallaudet is walking across Kendall Green on a snowy evening after watching our fabulous women’s basketball team finish off one of its 20 straight victories.

Gallaudet is all of these moments, all of these developments, and all of us. I look forward to continuing to work with you and to sharing the treasures of this remarkable and enduring place.

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