My younger brother celebrated his first birthday at a campus protest. It was 1988, and my Mom, a Gallaudet University graduate, had been following the growing student movement to demand a deaf president at her alma mater. She couldn’t stand being 400 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y. So never mind that my youngest brother was still nursing. She took him with her, and joined the Deaf President Now movement.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the movement. But I can’t remember not knowing I. King Jordan -- the president whose appointment was the result of that movement -- as a symbol of what was possible for me. My mother told me stories, and I grew up with Gallaudet. There was no other university for me. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be born deaf, and the third to attend Gallaudet.
I’m a senior so I should have been spending this week celebrating (when not studying for my last round of finals). Instead I’ve been protesting, with hundreds of my fellow students, over the appointment of Jordan’s successor. It’s difficult to explain to the outside world just what we’re doing, and granted it’s difficult to understand. After all, the trustees picked a deaf woman, who has spent much of her career at Gallaudet. What’s all the fuss about?
To best understand what’s happening now, you need to know that the Gallaudet I grew up with is not the Gallaudet I am graduating from. Whereas going to Gallaudet and demanding a deaf president were once part of simply affirming our pride in ourselves and our right to basic human needs, students want more today. In fact, some deaf students don’t even want to attend Gallaudet or the deaf high schools most of us attended because a range of opportunities are now available elsewhere. Many of those opportunities exist because of civil rights laws for people with disabilities -- laws the Deaf President Now movement had a hand in getting enacted.
But that doesn’t mean Gallaudet’s historic role isn’t part of why people care so much.
The university matters to the millions of deaf people around the world who have never visited it, who can only dream of enrolling in what is widely considered the “Deaf Mecca.” That’s no surprise when you consider that more than 80 percent of all deaf people in the world who have college degrees earned them at Gallaudet. Because of the hereditary link to some forms of deafness, many deaf people are like me, from deaf families, allowing us to share a passion that comes when so many of those you are closest to grew up with the same experience.
Jordan isn’t just a college president, but is a spokesman for deaf men and women around the world. The board that needed to be pressured into promoting him never assigned him that role, but it came about naturally because of the Deaf President Now movement. When he announced his retirement after 18 years, word shot around the globe in minutes. Everybody wanted a say in who is going to replace King, the man who lived up to his name.
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
When the board selected Jordan in 1988, students were thrilled that a deaf educator got the job. But the reality is that they didn’t know what kind of president he’d become. My mother took his psychology class in 1973, and could never fathom him becoming president some day. Fortunately, Jordan did just the kinds of things that presidents are expected to do (and that people previously assumed deaf people couldn’t do): He raised money, he oversaw huge endowment growth, he presided over the planning of new facilities, he dealt with campus controversies -- making both popular and unpopular decisions. In the end though, he was as good as advertised. Jordan’s tenure as president will always be marked by the history made with his appointment, but it also is marked by normalcy – by Jordan doing what presidents do.
And that’s what people are missing about the protests this week. They aren’t about us reliving Deaf President Now, trying to get our 15 minutes. The protests are about concerns we have that are just like those of other students at other campuses. On many campuses these days, students feel disconnected from trustees and from decision-making, and that -- in the end -- is what’s going on here. Jane Fernandes, whom the board selected as president, has served as provost for the last six years. There are no doubt better candidates for the position in our eyes. But what truly is upsetting is that students weren’t listened to at all. We were stunned by the decision -- and started the protests -- because an extensive system had been set up to seek our views, and we provided them. Then we were ignored. Sadly, the trustees’ willingness to only pay lip service to student opinions is not at all unique to our university.
Part of what is unique to Gallaudet is the role of its president well beyond its campus. When Lawrence Summers said some foolish things about women, he didn’t bring down the reputation of all colleges and universities. People said Harvard had a bad president, they didn’t stop paying attention to academe. One of the reasons we are concerned about Fernandes (who is not a bad person) is that she’s an administrator, not a leader. We don’t have the luxury of just going with someone who knows how to balance a budget -- we need more. We need someone who -- like Jordan -- knows everyone on campus and their families, and who can be eloquent with the media, politicians, and philanthropists. Someone who can navigate the tough issues we face – of how to attract students and define our institution’s mission in an ever changing world. In an era when people talk about “cures” for deafness, when deaf students can demand sign interpreters to go to any institution, when technology has created huge new opportunities for the deaf, Gallaudet is at a turning point.
And here too, what we want now is different from what Deaf President Now was pushing for. After 1988, we told ourselves that Gallaudet would never again see a hearing president, and only now are we able to affirm that sentiment. But with the advances of the last 18 years, deafness alone isn’t enough. We want the same kind of “good fit” that all colleges need in a president. And to say that we should be happy to have a deaf president is insulting. If Harvard makes a bad choice for president and students protest, you won’t see people saying, “Well they should just be happy that the president can hear.” Actually I’d like to see our provost considered for a presidency elsewhere, where her particular skill set would be a better fit. And I’d be proud of her for achieving such a high post in a hearing world.
Those still trying to make sense of our protests should understand that what is happening is part of a broader social movement. Gallaudet is a microcosm of colleges everywhere, where students are growing increasingly tired of being ignored. (Just witness students forcing change at the University of Miami over how their janitors are treated or at many institutions over investment in Sudan.) Keep in mind that this isn’t just Gallaudet. But the source of our passion?
It is Gallaudet.