A New President Signs on at Gallaudet as Deaf Students Make the Hearing World Listen

updated 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was a quiet, seemingly unremarkable moment, especially after the high drama of the preceding week, and its significance nearly escaped I. King Jordan, the newly appointed president of Gallaudet University. Jordan, 44, the former dean of the college of arts and sciences, had just finished meeting with student body president Greg Hlibok and the new chairman of the board of trustees, Philip W. Bravin, to talk about the future of the 2,125-student school in the nation's capital. As the three men emerged from the president's office, recalls Jordan, "Greg said to me, with tears in his eyes, 'There was no interpreter.' " None had been needed because the three men had conferred in sign language. For the first time in the school's 124-year history, the deaf held the fate of the nation's only federally subsidized university for the deaf in their own eloquent hands.

For Gallaudet students and perhaps millions of other hearing-impaired Americans, that meeting signaled the triumphal conclusion of a heady and tumultuous week. It had begun eight days earlier, when the university's board of directors announced that it had passed over Jordan and one other deaf candidate to appoint Elisabeth Zinser, 48, who is not deaf and who knows no sign language, as Gallaudet's seventh president. Immediately 500 Gallaudet students gathered on the Northeast Washington campus, shouting and signing "Deaf power! Deaf President now!" By the next day the number of protesters had quadrupled, and the students had taken over the school, blockading entrances and boycotting classes. Over the next few days, the protest went national; students at other deaf institutions held sympathy demonstrations, and supporters poured into Washington. "I didn't expect this tremendous response," says student leader Hlibok, 20. "But as we moved along it made sense because this struggle involves deaf people's lives all over the country. The board's decision was the catalyst for us to realize that this is our time."

It is a time that has been a long time coming. Chartered in 1864, Gallaudet—which receives about 75 percent of its $76 million budget from the U.S. Treasury—is regarded as a symbol of opportunity and pride by deaf people around the world. Yet, as an institution, it had also become a bastion of paternalism toward the hearing-impaired. While roughly one-third of Gallaudet's 275 faculty members are deaf, the school had never had a deaf president or a deaf majority on its 21-member board of directors. When challenged, some board members defended this state of affairs with rhetoric that was, at best, awkward and, at worst, unenlightened. Asked why she had never learned sign language in her six years as chairman of the Gallaudet board, Jane Bassett Spilman, a furniture company heiress, had a ready answer. "This job is extremely demanding," she said. "It was my opinion that my efforts and my time would be best directed in areas where others couldn't perform, like the budget."

That "plantation mentality"—in the words of deaf Gallaudet counseling professor Allen Sussman—earned Spilman the enmity of the students, who made her removal their second demand. Two days after students took over the campus, Spilman tried to address a rally but was drowned out when protesters set off all the high-decibel fire alarms in the field house. "It's hard to talk above this noise," Spilman complained. "What noise?" signed the students.

Edward Merrill, Gallaudet's much-loved president from 1969 to 1983, says he wrote Spilman a three-page letter last month warning her that the credibility of the school would be compromised if the trustees failed to name a deaf president. But the board rejected his advice—not because they are obstinate, Merrill says, but because their concerns were different from his. Members of the board say privately that worries about the financial future of Gallaudet—which Congress has been pressuring to pay more of its own way—were paramount when they selected Zinser, a vice chancellor of the University of North Carolina, who has a reputation as a successful fund raiser. Most members of the Gallaudet board "never had any experience with deaf people," says Merrill, who did learn to sign, and during his tenure was often seen around campus chatting with students. "They never picked up on the lesson of the '60s—that in a social unit authority is based on a consensus of those being served."

By late Thursday night Zinser, who never actually set foot on the Gallaudet campus, had decided to withdraw. "I was swayed by this sense of ground-swell across the nation that now is the time for a deaf president," she announced. By Sunday, Spilman had stepped down as well, and the board had voted to give Jordan the job of president. In many ways, he is an ideal choice: well-versed in the issues of deaf education, well-liked on campus and familiar with the worlds of both the hearing and the hearing-impaired. A Gallaudet graduate with a Ph.D. in psychology who both speaks and signs, Jordan lost his hearing at the age of 22 in a motorcycle accident.

On the night of Jordan's appointment hundreds of jubilant students cheered and waved their hands when he walked into their victory celebration with his wife, Linda, 39, a hearing first-grade teacher, and their two children. "You made me president," said Jordan, speaking and signing, "and the deaf world will never be the same again. I love you!"

—By William Plummer, with Jane Sims Podesta and Ira Allen in Washington

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