Deaf President Now

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Deaf President Now (DPN) was a student protest at Gallaudet University, the liberal arts university for the deaf in Washington, DC, pushing for the selection of a deaf university president. The university, established by an act of Congress in 1857 to serve the deaf, had always been led by a hearing president. The DPN protesters felt that the lack of a deaf president suggested the belief that a nonhearing person was not competent to administer a university, as well as that deaf people were, at large, incapable of controlling their own fates.

DPN took place over an eight day period between March 6 and March 13, 1988. Because it received national media attention for the entire duration of the protest, the event is considered a watershed moment that raised awareness of Deaf culture. On the fourth day of the protest, Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline interviewed some of the major actors in the clash. Parallels were drawn between DPN and the American Civil Rights Movement.

The lead up

Deaf students at Gallaudet began campaigning for a deaf president when Jerry Lee, who had been president since 1984, resigned in 1987. Students supporting the selection of a deaf president participated in a large rally on March 1.

To advertise for the rally, Gallaudet alumnus John Yeh printed flyers that read:

"It's time! In 1842, a Roman Catholic became president of the University of Notre Dame. In 1875, a woman became president of Wellesley College. In 1886, a Jew became president of Yeshiva University. In 1926, a Black person became president of Howard University. AND in 1988, the Gallaudet University presidency belongs to a DEAF person."

Yeh underwrote a good deal of the costs of the rally, including the thousands of yellow-and-blue buttons that read "Deaf President Now." Many other alumni participated in the events as well. A candlelight vigil occurred on March 5. The board of trustees considered three finalists: Elisabeth Ann Zinser, Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; I. King Jordan, Gallaudet's Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who had been deaf since early adulthood; and Harvey Corson, president of a Louisiana residential school, who had been born deaf.

On March 6, 1988, the board announced the selection of Zinser — the sole hearing candidate among several qualified deaf applicants. Further causing astonishment and outrage, Zinser had little experience with deaf education and no sign language skills at all.

The protest

Student leaders Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus, and other students and protesters associated with the DPN movement quickly closed the University and barricaded the campus gates using heavy duty bicycle locks and school buses with the air let out of the tires. The protesters issued four demands, which were supported by faculty and staff:

  1. That a new deaf president be named immediately;
  2. That Jane Bassett Spilman, chair of the board of trustees (who, it was alleged, announced the board's choice with the comment that "the deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world") resign immediately;
  3. That the board of trustees, at that time composed of 17 hearing members and four deaf, be reconstituted with a majority of deaf members;
  4. That there be no reprisals.

Students were joined by deaf and hearing supporters from all over the country. Three hundred deaf students from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf came to Washington, D.C. by bus, and others came from all over the U.S. and Europe. Dr. Zinser resigned on the evening of March 10. On March 11, about 2,500 demonstrators — a thousand Gallaudet students along with their supporters — marched to the United States Capitol building where there were speeches, spoken and signed.

The resolution

On March 13, 1988, the board of trustees met for nine hours. Philip Bravin, the new (deaf) chair of the board, announced that Spilman had resigned, and that I. King Jordan, the deaf dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Gallaudet, had been elected President. Furthermore, all four demands of the protesters were met.

References

  • Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A journey into the world of the deaf. Harper Perennial, 1989. ISBN 0-06-097347-1.
  • Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Random House, 1993.
  • Gannon, Jack R. "The Week the World Heard Gallaudet". Gallaudet University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-930323-54-8.

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