California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) will award honorary doctorates to three individuals this year. One of the three is Gallaudet University President Emeritus Robert R. Davila, ’53 & H-’88. He will receive the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa during the commencement ceremony for the school’s College of Health and Human Services on Saturday, May 18.  

Robert R. Davila was born in Southern California to Mexican parents who worked in the fields and orchards. At age 11, he contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf. His mother sent him to the California School for the Deaf, then located in Berkeley, where he excelled.  At CSD Berkeley, Davila learned American Sign Language and English. After graduating with honors, he became the first Latino student to enroll at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1953. He later earned a master’s degree in special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a doctoral degree in educational technology from Syracuse University.  

His journey led to a life promoting education and advocating for deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. and around the world.  

Two people in suit and tie, the one on far right is wearing glasses. Both are standing, looking at the camera, smiling, while shaking hands.
Dr. Davila (right) poses with Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval.

Davila started as a high school teacher and moved into leadership positions in the K-12 educational system. Starting in 1972, he served for many years in a variety of positions from professor to college administrator and vice president of what is now the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.  

From 1989 to 1993, Davila served as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education under President George H. W. Bush. He was the first Deaf person appointed by a president to a policy position where he managed a nearly $6 billion budget. He was also the first Deaf person to address an official session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1992.  

Following his time with the U.S. Department of Education, Davila returned to K-12 education, leading the New York School for the Deaf at Fanwood. In 1996, Davila was installed as the first Deaf Vice President of Rochester Institute of Technology and President of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. In 2007, he became Gallaudet’s ninth president, and served in this role for three years. 

Davila first connected with Fresno State as a keynote speaker for the Chicano/Latino Commencement Celebration and a conference for teachers. He has also worked closely with Karen Jensen, founder of the Fresno State Deaf Education Program. In 2022, Davila established the Robert R. and Donna E. Davila Endowment in the Silent Garden at Fresno State. This endowment supports Spanish-language programming for deaf and hard of hearing families in California. 

Congratulations, President Davila!

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