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National Deaf Life Museum
Robert R. Davila’s American story
The life story of Robert R. Davila, Gallaudet University’s ninth president, is quintessentially American.
Born to poor but loving parents, both from Mexico and both workers in the fields and orchards of the central valley in California, Robert Davila became deaf at eight years of age, the result of a severe case of spinal meningitis. Learning about a special school for deaf children in the northern part of the state and determined that her young son have a fair shot at life, Davila’s mother sent him off alone to the city of Berkeley, the home of the California School for the Deaf (CSD). So began his amazing journey to personal and professional success.
Although the young Davila had received only sporadic formal education until his arrival at CSD because his family was consistently moving with the seasons, once he arrived at Berkeley, he soared. He learned American Sign Language and English, and after graduating with honors from CSD, entered Gallaudet University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1953, followed by master’s and doctorate degrees in education from Hunter College and Syracuse University, respectively.
When he became Gallaudet University’s president on January 1, 2007, Davila brought with him a depth of experience in education, both as a classroom teacher and institutional administrator. His classroom career involved teaching at the elementary, high school, and college levels, including nine years as a professor in Gallaudet’s Department of Education.
He earned his “administrative spurs” supervising elementary schools for deaf students in New York and Washington, D.C., and from there progressed up the professional ladder to become vice president of Gallaudet University’s former Pre-College Programs (now called the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center), Headmaster of the New York School for the Deaf, chief executive officer of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education. As Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, he was the federal government’s chief advisor on federal policy affecting the education and rehabilitation of the nation’s 40 million people with disabilities.
Davila holds honorary degrees from Gallaudet, RIT, Stonehill College, and Hunter College. He is the recipient of numerous awards and is a prolific speaker and author on topics related to the education and empowerment of deaf people from birth to adulthood. He has been a keynote speaker a number of times at World Federation of the Deaf congresses and International Congress of Educators of the Deaf meetings.
Davila has achieved many “firsts” in his life. He was the first Latino Gallaudet undergraduate alumnus to obtain an earned doctoral degree, the first deaf person elected president of the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID), first deaf elected president of the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD), first deaf person elected president of the Council on Education of the Deaf, the first deaf CEO of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), and he was the first deaf person in history to address an official session of the United Nations General Assembly when he was assigned to close out the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons in 1992.
Dr. Davila’s presidency ended on December 31, 2009. There were many events to celebrate his service and contributions to the University. The following are additional distinguished accomplishments by Dr. Robert R. Davila:
In 1856, Amos Kendall, a postmaster general during two presidential administrations, donated two acres of his estate in northeast Washington, D.C. to establish a school and housing for 12 deaf and six blind students. The following year, Kendall persuaded Congress to incorporate the new school,...
Resource Type: History
Gallaudet University, chartered in 1864, is a private university for deaf and hard of hearing students.
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