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Day 1: Sunday, March 6

Instead of coming to campus and announcing its decision as was planned, the Board of Trustees had the University’s Public Relations Office hastily hand out press releases at 6:30 p.m., an hour and a half before many had expected. The release announced that, rather than picking one of the deaf candidates as president, the Board had selected Elisabeth Zinser, the sole hearing candidate.

The reaction on campus ranged from disbelief to anger, at both the decision and the way it was announced. The crowd that had gathered to learn the Board’s decision began to mill about. Several hundred spilled out onto Florida Avenue in front of the campus and blocked traffic.

Gary Olsen, president of National Association of the Deaf (NAD), got the crowd’s attention and suggested that everyone march down to the Mayflower Hotel—where the Board had been meeting—and demand an explanation. Which is what they did. Since the Trustees hadn’t come to campus to make themselves available for questions, the campus decided to go to them.

When the marchers arrived at the Mayflower, Board Chair Jane Spilman and Phil Bravin, a Deaf member of the Board, were responding to questions from reporters. Chaos broke out when the students and their supporters demanded an audience with the Board.

Finally, representatives of the protesters, including Tim Rarus, the student who had served on the search committee, were allowed to meet with Spilman and other Board members.

It was at this meeting that Spilman supposedly said, “Deaf people are not able to function in a hearing world.” Although Spilman has long denied she ever said this, many protesters believed it was true and, to them, it clearly showed how out of touch Spilman and the rest of the Board were with deaf people.

After several hours of discussion with the Board, Rarus told the waiting crowd that Spilman wanted to explain why Zinser had been chosen.

Instead of resolving the impending conflict, this meeting only fueled the flames of discontent more. Many of those in the audience have since been quoted as saying that what they perceived as Spilman’s dismissive attitude that evening made them decide to stand firm for what they believed in. However, as a result of this meeting, Spilman did agree to come to the campus the next afternoon to discuss the issues further.

By midnight, most of the marchers had left the hotel and walked to the White House to meet up with other marchers who had gone there earlier. Together they proceeded to the U.S. Capitol, then back to Gallaudet’s campus.

Day 2: Monday, March 7

Students and other protesters met throughout the night, discussing and debating what to do next. At about dawn, they drove several cars to each of the University’s entrances and deflated their tires, blocking the way onto as well as off the campus. The students even prevented some administrators from walking onto the campus by forming a human chain, but most faculty and staff attempting to enter the campus were allowed to do so.

Throughout the morning, the campus was alive with activity. In addition to impromptu speeches and rallies, protest leaders were meeting to formalize their demands. When Spilman and other Board members arrived for their meeting at noon, they were presented with the following demands:

  • Zinser must resign and a deaf president be selected.
  • Spilman must resign from the Board.
  • The percentage of deaf members on the Board of Trustees must be increased to at least 51%.
  • There must be no reprisals against any of the protesters.

Representatives including some students, faculty and staff brought the list to the Board in a meeting that lasted over three hours. At the conclusion, Spilman told the group that the Board rejected the demands and the selection of Zinser would stand.

Spilman and others proceeded to the University’s auditorium to make their announcements there. However, Harvey Goodstein, a deaf faculty member, walked onto the stage before Spilman and told the crowd that the demands hadn’t been met and that there was no use in staying. He then proceeded to encourage everyone to get up and walk out, which nearly everyone did.

The protesters then spontaneously marched to the Capitol, about a mile away, to listen to more impassioned speeches of encouragement. By this time, the story was front-page local news, and dozens of reporters descended upon the University. For the most part, protesters were eager to talk to the media. Sign language interpreters took to wearing colored arm bands to be easier to identify for an interview with a deaf person.

The day ended with both sides firmly entrenched in their opposing positions and no quick resolution in sight.

Day 3: Tuesday, March 8

In the morning, the University gates were re-opened, and people were allowed to come and go. Students boycotted classes, instead attending rallies and speeches. At the same time, the faculty met to discuss what they should do.

By this time, four students had emerged as leaders of the protest: Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus. Faculty, staff, alumni, and other advocacy group organizers continued their work in a less visible but well coordinated manner. The Alumni House became the headquarters for the protest, and the Deaf President Now Council was formed. This group included identified student, staff, faculty and alumni liaisons, media, interpreter and fundraising coordinators, as well as legal and legislative liaisons.

Rallies and speeches continued throughout the day. By evening, the protest had reached beyond local media and was featured on many national television programs and in newspapers across the country.

Day 4: Wednesday, March 9

The day began with an early-morning meeting between a small group from Gallaudet and Reps. David Bonior of Michigan and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, both University Trustees. (Two congressmen and one senator are regularly appointed to serve on the University’s Board. Also on the Board at this time was Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.)

The day before, Bonior had contacted Jack Gannon, the director of the University’s Alumni Association, and requested the meeting. Another attendee was Hlibok, president of the Student Body Government.

At about this same time, Elisabeth Zinser arrived in Washington, D.C. She had agreed to begin her presidency early and felt that her presence would help bring the protest to a close. One of the first things she did was to meet with I. King Jordan in the offices of the public relations firm working on behalf of the Board of Trustees. Together the two then went to meet with the four student leaders, who urged Zinser to step down. She refused.

Zinser and Jordan then went to the National Press Club, where Spilman had just begun a press conference. At this press conference, Jordan publicly announced his endorsement and support of Zinser.

Meanwhile, the faculty of the University and of Pre-College, along with staff people, met to decide whether they supported this now-student-led protest. There was some dissension and opposition in the faculty meeting, but, in the end, the votes in both the faculty and staff meetings resulted in complete support of the protest.

At 4 p.m. Zinser and Spilman met with Bonior and Gunderson. Obviously the congressmen’s earlier meeting with Gannon and others had influenced them greatly, as both men urged Zinser to resign. That evening Bonior publicly announced his support of the protesters.

Throughout the day, reporters and supporters flocked to Gallaudet’s campus. The late Mitch Snyder, then director of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, came to lend his support.

That night Hlibok, Zinser, and Deaf actress Marlee Matlin-who had won an Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God in 1986-were interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC’s program Nightline.

Day 5: Thursday, March 10

Hlibok appeared on another ABC program, “Good Morning America.” Amid speculation that Zinser and Spilman would force their way onto campus, the students drove Gallaudet school buses to the gates of the campus and deflated the tires.

Rallies were held all day. Moral and monetary support flowed in from a variety of sources. Students from the National Technical Institute of the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., and other schools for deaf students arrived in bus loads, and local and national businesses donated supplies and money-including a check for $5,000 from the American Postal Workers Union, hand-delivered by the union’s president, Moe Biller.

That afternoon, in front of Chapel Hall and hundreds of onlookers, Jordan retracted his support for the Board’s decision to appoint Zinser. After giving the matter much thought, he told the onlookers that he now fully supported the four demands set forth by the students and felt the protest was completely justified.

That night, Zinser announced her resignation.

Day 6: Friday, March 11

As the news spread about Zinser’s resignation, there was a decidedly festive atmosphere on campus. Since only a portion of the first demand-that Zinser resign so a deaf president could be named in her place-had been achieved, students began wearing buttons with “3½” on them, signifying how many demands were left.

Zinser, Spilman, and some members of the Board held a press conference downtown, while those on campus held one, too. Students vowed to stay on campus rather than leave for Spring Break-scheduled to begin that day-to continue the protest until all demands were met.

At noon, there was a march to the Capitol. Unlike other impromptu marches made previously, this one was scheduled in advance, and permits had been received. It was a day of celebration, and many from local and national deaf communities participated. At the Capitol, the crowd was treated to speeches by a variety of people, including Congressman Steve Gunderson.

At 7 p.m., there was another rally in the Field House.

Day 7: Saturday, March 12

Saturday was a day of rest. The weather was balmy for the middle of March, and many on campus attended afternoon barbecues and an all-day arts festival.

Day 8: Sunday, March 13

A week after announcing Zinser’s selection as president, the Board of Trustees returned to Washington for an emergency all-day meeting to discuss what to do next.

In the evening, Phil Bravin and Jane Spilman hosted their last press conference to state that:

  • Spilman had resigned as Board chair, succeeded by Bravin
  • A task force would be set up to determine the best way to achieve a 51% deaf majority on the Board
  • No reprisals … and
  • Dr. I. King Jordan was named eighth president—and the first deaf president—of Gallaudet University.

It was all over. After eight emotional, action-packed days, it was over.

Epilogue

Why was this protest so successful?

While there is no simple answer, here are some of the factors that may have contributed:

  • There was overwhelming community involvement that included deaf and hearing students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
  • The protesters used the same methods-boycotting of classes, marches, and letter writing campaigns—that had been successful protest strategies in the past.
  • The DPN protesters had clearly defined goals, and they were focused on the group-the Board of Trustees-that could actually do what they wanted.
  • The protest leaders were organized. They began the groundwork for their movement months before the actual protest, got the news media interested early, and, once the protest started, formed an organizing committee and control center.
  • The protesters wisely drew parallels between their struggle and dream for a deaf president with that of the civil rights movement. Many in the public may not have been able to relate if it had been termed only a “disability movement.” Because it was seen as a “civil rights movement,” more people could identify and support the protesters.
  • The protest was non-violent and-except for not obtaining permits for all of their marches-respected the law.
  • It was labeled a “student” protest, even though many of the organizers and supporters were alumni, faculty, and staff. Additionally, the four students who emerged as the leaders were all articulate and intelligent.
  • It attracted phenomenal media attention and coverage during the entire week. It was front-page news in The Washington Post and in newspapers across the country and around the world, and it was regularly featured on television and radio news. It was one of the first times for the reporters and the viewers alike to see for themselves that deaf students and deaf people really could do anything, except hear.

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