Areas of Study

Empowering the Deaf Community at Gallaudet University

Dr. David Armstrong, an anthropologist, author, and former Gallaudet budget director, gave a presentation entitled “DPN and the Struggle for Deaf Control of Gallaudet” on April 1 in the JSAC Multipurpose Room. The event was part of Gallaudet’s recognition of the 25th anniversary of Deaf President Now (DPN).
Armstrong worked at Gallaudet for 30 years under the direction of seven presidents until his retirement in 2010. He began his career in the Office of Institutional Planning and Research, then served as budget director between 1987 and 2007, and concluded as director of the Gallaudet University Press. For the past two years, Armstrong has been working on a book on Gallaudet history that is due to be published next year in time for the University’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

The historic roots of the DPN movement and what has happened post-DPN were the central themes of Armstrong’s lecture. When Armstrong arrived at Gallaudet in 1980, not only had there never been a deaf president, there was no deaf provost, there were few deaf executives, and most of the employees were hearing. A large majority of the Board of Trustees was hearing, as well.

Resistance to being controlled by hearing people started early in Gallaudet’s history. Armstrong said that Michael Olson, interim director of the University Archives, documented that in the 1880s deaf people did not want Daniel Chester French, a hearing sculptor who is well known for his work on the statue of President Abraham Lincoln’s seated figure at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to sculpt the statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell. The deaf community wanted a deaf sculptor to do the job. Armstrong also noted that the Board of Trustees did not include a deaf member until Boyce Williams, ’32, was appointed in 1951. The Alumni Association had worked for many years to make that happen. Still, in 1988, when DPN took place, only four out of 19 BOT members were deaf.

Dr. Edward Merrill, who retired in 1983 as Gallaudet’s fourth president, suggested to the board that he should be replaced by a deaf president. During his presidency, Merrill appointed deaf people to administrative positions, such as Dr. Thomas Mayes as the campus’ first deaf vice president in continuing education and advocacy in 1941, and Robert Davila, ’53, who later became president, served as vice president for Pre-College Programs (now known as Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center) in 1978.

“It is significant in this regard that President Merrill had begun to see a role for Gallaudet in the area of advocacy for the empowerment of the deaf community,” Armstrong said. He also mentioned that Jack and Rosalyn Gannon’s research findings in the book, Deaf Heritage, which listed 81 deaf doctorates like Davila, I. King Jordan, and current Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz. This fueled support for a deaf president for Gallaudet, Armstrong said, because it effectively countered the argument by many hearing people who were opposed to the idea that there was supposedly a lack of well-trained deaf people who were suited for the post.

After DPN, there was not only an increase in the number of deaf employees at Gallaudet, including those serving as chief academic officer. As of 2012, 50 percent of Gallaudet University employees are deaf, Armstrong said.
At the end of the panel, student Keith Doane, a senior from Germany, asked Armstrong how he wanted to see Gallaudet 20 to 30 years in the future? Armstrong responded that the use of ASL and face-to-face communication that have always been at the heart of Gallaudet, should continue.

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