What Happened…

The spark that ignited DPN was the announcement on March 6, 1988, by the University’s Board of Trustees that a hearing person had been selected as Gallaudet’s seventh president. In the months — or by some accounts, the years — leading up to this date, many in the deaf community and on campus had advocated for a deaf person to be named to the presidency.

After all, by then there were more than 100 deaf people with doctorates, and many more who held administrative positions. Because of this, and because two of the three finalists for the position were deaf, many people were confident that the next president of Gallaudet would be a deaf person.

However, in spite of all the evidence and support, the Board chose the lone hearing candidate, Elisabeth A. Zinser, who was then the assistant chancellor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Unhappy with this decision, Gallaudet students, backed by a number of alumni, staff, and faculty, shut down the campus.

The students and their backers then presented the Board of Trustees with four demands:

  1. Elisabeth Zinser must resign and a deaf person selected president;
  2. Jane Spilman must step down as chairperson of the Board of Trustees;
  3. Deaf people must constitute a 51% majority on the Board; and
  4. There would no reprisals against any student or employee involved in the protest.

By the end of the week, the students ended their protest and proclaimed victory. All of their demands had been met and Dr. I. King Jordan was named the Gallaudet’s eighth-and first-deaf president.

A Brief History of Gallaudet

To truly understand DPN, one must know a little about Gallaudet’s history and the history of deaf people in the United States.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, after whom Gallaudet University is named, became interested in deaf education in 1814, when he met a bright young deaf child who was not receiving a proper education. He traveled to Europe in search of the best educational methods for teaching deaf children.

He was unimpressed with England’s system because it didn’t encourage the use of manual communication, that is, sign language. Finally he met educators from the Paris School for the Deaf who agreed to share information about sign language and how to educate deaf children.

Gallaudet convinced one of the French educators, Laurent Clerc, to return with him to the United States and in 1817, they co-founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the nation’s first school for deaf children.

Forty years later, in 1857, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s youngest child, Edward Miner Gallaudet, came to Washington, D.C., where he established a school for deaf children. The school flourished and in 1864, a collegiate division was added-and so began the world’s only university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

The Roots of Unrest

Gallaudet had been in existence one hundred and twenty-four years when DPN occurred.

Why then? Why not sooner?

History shows us that explosive events like DPN don’t happen without good reason. For example, the American Revolution and our nation’s Civil Rights Movement were the result of many years of oppression and frustration on the part of people who were mistreated, misunderstood, ignored, and underestimated.

At some point, however, the oppressed decide they have had enough; they realize that their circumstances will only change if they take matters into their own hands; they protest.

So, although the United States believed enough in deaf peoples’ abilities to establish Gallaudet University in 1864, prejudices and discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people persisted. In addition, there were major disagreements among the educators of deaf people.

Two camps emerged: the manualists and the oralists. Edward Miner Gallaudet supported the use of sign language in teaching students who were deaf, while Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was a strong proponent of the pure oral method.

In 1880, an international meeting of educators of deaf children in Milan, Italy banned the use of sign language in the teaching of deaf children. This decision led to the expulsion of deaf teachers from most classrooms because it was believed deaf teachers were not competent enough to either teach in or administer schools for deaf children.

Bell and other hearing people thought they knew what was best for deaf people and strongly advocated the suppression of sign language usage-inside and outside the classroom. Bell was even of the opinion that deaf people should not intermarry. Edward Gallaudet, on the other hand, was conflicted on these issues but ultimately supported the continued use of sign language at the college.

By 1919, almost all schools for deaf children used the oral method of instruction. Most of the teachers were hearing and deaf children had little if any exposure to deaf role models.

Past Presidents

To most in the Deaf Community, especially Gallaudet alumni, faculty, staff and students, who was president of the University was of major consequence.

By 1988, no one at Gallaudet doubted the ability of deaf people to do whatever they wanted to do. The big question was whether or not the administration and Board of Trustees really believed the same thing.

Who were the past presidents of Gallaudet

Edward Miner Gallaudet was the president that served the longest — 46 years — from 1864 until he retired in 1910. As you know, his father and Laurent Clerc co-founded the first school for deaf children in the United States.Due to this and the fact that his mother was also deaf, he knew and used sign language his entire life.

Next was Dr. Percival Hall, a hearing man who graduated from Gallaudet’s Normal Department as it was known then, a department established for the instruction of hearing teachers of deaf students. Dr. Hall served from 1910 until he retired in 1945.

The reins were then passed on to Dr. Leonard M. Elstad who, like Hall, received his master’s degree from Gallaudet. Elstad served as president for 24 years, from 1945 – 1969.

Dr. Edward C. Merrill, Jr., the fourth president of Gallaudet University, also served for a lengthy term, from 1969 until 1983.

The first 120 years of the University’s existence were marked by growth and stability. The first four presidents each had a background in the education of deaf students, one of whom even had a deaf spouse.

It was during the presidential search for Merrill’s replacement that several in the Deaf Community, including Dr. Merrill himself, began promoting the idea of a deaf president for the University.

However, the idea never got widespread support and Dr. W. Lloyd Johns, then president of a university in California, was named the fifth president of Gallaudet. Johns was president for only a few months, however and was never officially inaugurated.

Dr. Jerry C. Lee, then vice president for Administration and Business, took over after Johns on an interim basis. Several months later, without a formal search process, the Board of Trustees named him as sixth president of Gallaudet.

It was also during the mid-1980s when the University’s President’s Council on Deafness (PCD) was formed. The PCD was an advocacy group comprising deaf staff and faculty members who felt the needs of deaf people were sometimes overlooked by an administration that consisted mainly of hearing people.

The Search

When Jerry Lee became president of Gallaudet University in 1983, he did so with the understanding that he would serve in that capacity for a limited period of time. However, when he announced his resignation on August 24, 1987, it still came as a surprise to many.

He was gone four months later, at the end of 1987, to take up a post as vice-president of Bassett Furniture, a furniture company located in Bassett, Virginia. It didn’t set well with many that the organization that lured Lee away was the same one run by the husband of the chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Jane Spilman.

The Board of Trustees quickly established a committee to begin the search for a new president. The committee included Board members and representatives from the alumni, students, faculty, and staff. A consultant was hired to ensure that the best qualified deaf and hearing individuals applied.

By the deadline in October, 87 applications were received; by January the committee had reduced the number to twelve. Each of twelve was interviewed, and by mid-January, it was announced there were six semifinalists: three deaf, three hearing.

In February, the six semifinalists were again interviewed by the search committee, as well as by eight on-campus groups. Each of the interviewing groups rated the candidates and made their recommendations to the search committee; on February 28, 19 the committee announced the finalists:

  • Dr. Harvey Corson, a deaf man serving as the superintendent of the Louisiana School for the Deaf;
  • Dr. I. King Jordan, a deaf man who was currently the dean of the University’s College of Arts and Sciences; and,
  • Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, a hearing woman and assistant chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

From the time of Dr. Lee’s announcement of his resignation, deaf advocacy groups and organizations made it clear to the Board that they wanted the next president of Gallaudet University to be deaf. These groups included the PCD, the National Association of the Deaf, the Gallaudet University Alumni Association, and some faculty groups.

They wrote articles for deaf publications, sent letters of support to the Board, and recommended lists of prospective deaf candidates. In addition, a group of young alumni-calling themselves the “Ducks” (because, the story goes, they held their first meetings at a duckpin bowling alley), developed strategies that went beyond letter-writing campaigns.

As the momentum for a deaf president grew, letters of endorsement flooded in. Vice-President George Bush and Senators Bob Dole, Bob Graham, Tom Harkin, and Lowell Weicker all supported the idea, as did Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson. The mainstream media had yet to latch onto the cause however, but that would change.

Strange as it seems now, the level of student involvement at this point was low to virtually non-existent. But this too would change, and when the students joined in they made all the difference in the world.

The Week Before

March 1, 1988 was a crucial date in the history of DPN. It was the day of the first fully organized rally, the event that inspired many students to join the movement. For some, it was the first time they had even learned what the protest was all about and what it would mean for them to have a deaf president.

In their flyers, organizers likened the protest to a civil rights movement, drawing parallels between the deaf community and other minority groups.

More than 1,000 University students, elementary and high school students from the University’s Pre-College Programs, staff, faculty, alumni, and members from the local deaf community participated in the rally. It was a traveling rally, moving from the football field, to the elementary school, the largest classroom building, president’s home, and ending at the statue of the first president of the University, Edward Miner Gallaudet. Those in attendance were treated to motivating and mobilizing speeches by various deaf leaders.

During the next four days, a flurry of activity occurred. Students began camping out in tents on the lawn of the president’s home, the president of the Student Body Government, Greg Hlibok, wrote Zinser a letter asking her to withdraw her candidacy, and the NAD and the GUAA sent information out to their constituents about the successful rally.

Also, a television reporter and crew arrived on campus after learning about the students camping out and about the several hundred students who briefly blocked traffic on Florida Avenue, the main street that borders the south side of the campus.

On Saturday, March 5, 1988, the Gallaudet Board of Trustees met at a hotel downtown to interview both Zinser and Jordan. Corson was interviewed on Sunday morning. The Board was scheduled to vote and announce their selection of the next president of the university at eight o’clock on Sunday evening. However, things didn’t quite go as they had been planned…

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