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WASHINGTON -- The turning point of a “landmark episode” for deaf people happened in a small hotel room, as I. King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, tells it. Jordan, four students, and Elisabeth Zinser, the hearing person who had been named president of Gallaudet earlier that week, gathered in a small room with just one chair and one bed on March 9, 1988, because students refused to let Zinser onto campus amid protests and class boycotts.  And it was in that hotel room that one of the students, according to Jordan, said to Zinser, “‘You will never be Gallaudet’s president. Never.”

The next day, Zinser resigned, and four days later, Gallaudet’s Board of Trustees named Jordan the new president.

Twenty-five years later, the university is celebrating the "Deaf President Now" movement with a series of panels and discussions. The first panel, held at Gallaudet on Tuesday, featured the first three deaf presidents – Jordan, Robert Davila, and current president T. Alan Hurwitz – and a discussion of the legacy DPN, as many here call the movement, has left, both for the campus and for deaf people far from here.

The weeklong protest, all three presidents recalled, reached much further than the Gallaudet campus. Hurwitz, who at the time was at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, recalled students and faculty members taking buses to DC to join in calling for a deaf president at Gallaudet. Panel moderator Brian Greenwald, a history professor at Gallaudet, remembered seeing coverage of the protests on television while attending the Clarke School, a school for the deaf in Massachusetts. Until that week, he said, he had never had a deaf adult role model.

“DPN raised the consciousness of the public that deaf people can do anything,” Hurwitz said.

But the public nature of the protest, which was on the front page of national newspapers almost daily, meant Jordan faced significant pressure to perform. His selection as president was viewed as a victory for the entire deaf community, but it meant he had to prove that a deaf person really could lead the university as well as – or better than – a hearing person.

 “Every day when I didn’t want to work, I had to work anyway. Every day when I didn’t want to smile, I had to smile anyway,” Jordan said.

Jordan did succeed, creating new buildings on campus, new fellowships for deaf students, and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to $150 million before he retired in 2005. But it wasn’t easy, and he and the other presidents agreed that leading Gallaudet is a unique role, as one has to be both CEO of the university and an advocate for deaf people.

“A movement needs a symbol, DPN needed a symbol, and when it succeeded and a deaf president was chosen, that person became a symbol of success,” Jordan said. “That’s a big responsibility.”

Hurwitz said that deaf people look to Gallaudet as a leader, and to the president of Gallaudet as a role model. Though this is certainly positive, he said, it’s important for the president to balance education and advocacy. Davila echoed this idea, adding that the university needs to be reflective and intentional about which issues it takes up on behalf of the deaf community. It is better, he said, to thoroughly address a few issues than to attempt to address everything.

One way to address more issues and become a stronger advocate for the deaf community, Hurwitz said, is by training students to fight for change. The same goes for faculty, he said – Gallaudet must train the next generation of deaf academics and prepare them to become administrators and, perhaps, presidents.

The presidents discussed the possibility of Gallaudet ever selecting a hearing president again. Now that it is clear that a deaf person can run the university, Jordan said he has a hard time imagining the board selecting someone who is not deaf, though he doesn’t expect the search for the next president to be limited to deaf people. Similarly, Davila said it is a matter of picking the most qualified and capable candidate, and there is no longer a question as to whether a deaf person is capable.

“All things being equal, if you pick a deaf person for this position, you’re sending a very powerful message,” Davila said. “Does that mean they have to be deaf? No.”

Of course, that shouldn’t be an issue for some time, as Hurwitz only became president in 2010. So for now, he is focusing on applying the lessons of DPN to the university 25 years later. He said he is beginning to think about diversity and inclusion on Gallaudet’s campus, and about keeping open the dialogue that started during DPN.

“It’s not something that’s a one-shot deal,” he said.

And Jordan, meanwhile, is continuing the advocacy work he began as president, hoping to spread the message that he believes was at the core of DPN: “Deaf people can do anything, except hear.”

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