Standing Up for Diversity: As a University Established for Deaf Students, Gallaudet's Diversity Initiatives Seek to Further Empower and Enlighten Its Community. (Washington)(Cover Story)

By Brotherton, Phaedra | Black Issues in Higher Education, October 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

Standing Up for Diversity: As a University Established for Deaf Students, Gallaudet's Diversity Initiatives Seek to Further Empower and Enlighten Its Community. (Washington)(Cover Story)


Brotherton, Phaedra, Black Issues in Higher Education


When Jerry C. Lee, former president of Gallaudet University -- the Washington, D.C.-based university established for deaf and hard of hearing students -- resigned in 1987, students rallied on campus for the board of trustees to name a deaf president to head the university for the first time in the school's history.

But when the board of trustees named a hearing president in 1988, students revolted. They took over the campus, marched on Capitol Hill and demanded a deaf president, the new president's resignation, the board chairman's resignation and a shuffling of the board to include a 51 percent deaf membership.

The school shut down for a week. The newly appointed president resigned along with the board chairman. When the dust settled, Dr. I. King Jordan, then dean of the university's College of Arts and Sciences, a Gallaudet alumnus and one of two deaf candidates in the running to lead the university, was named the first deaf president in the school's 124-year history.

"Gallaudet had some of the same issues that HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) had in their beginnings," says Frank H. Wu, member of Gallaudet's board of trustees and associate professor of law at the Howard University School of Law in Washington. "Most HBCUs were founded by Whites or founded with White patrons or donors. And they were run by Whites," explains Wu, who is also director of the Clinical Law Center at Howard's law school. Before 1988, Gallaudet was run by hearing people. Students felt that this was condescending, says Wu.

That 1988 movement -- known as Deaf President Now or DPN -- empowered Gallaudet and the deaf community, says Wu. Today more than half of the members of the board are deaf. Many of those who teach and work in the administration are deaf. And nearly everyone on campus is bilingual and knows how to sign.

A VARIETY OF DIFFERENCES

That sense of empowerment has carried over into addressing issues related to cultural and ethnic diversity. Five years after DPN, a group of African American faculty, staff and students openly questioned the university's "verbal commitment to diversity," says Dr. Lindsay Dunn, special assistant to the president for diversity and community relations.

"They pointed out that we did not have people of color in higher level management and most people in positions of leadership were White," says Dunn, who is deaf.

President I. King Jordan agreed, and in 1993, the Office of Multicultural Student Programs was formed; in 1994, the Office for Diversity and Community Relations was established.

Dunn, who is originally from South Africa, was hired to create the Office for Diversity and Community Relations. Dunn says that Jordan was determined to see the status quo change and, together with the Black campus community, created the office and agreed that it would have a broad mandate to help the university deal with all forms of bigotry and prejudice.

Dr. Glenn B. Anderson, chairman of Gallaudet's board of trustees, adds that Gallaudet has students from every state and many different countries.

"Some students who grew up in rural areas have never met nor had experiences living and interacting with students of color, students from African, Latin American or Asian countries, or students with different religious beliefs," says Anderson, who is deaf.

Board member Dr. Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College in Atlanta, has called Gallaudet "the most diverse small college in the United States." Anderson says this is because in addition to racial, cultural and gender difference, the school has to deal with tensions related to the differences resulting from the experience of being deaf in today's society. Because Gallaudet employees are hearing, as well as deaf and hard of hearing, the university faces many unique challenges not faced by other universities.

It's sometimes a challenge for "university faculty and student life staff to find ways to bridge these major differences in life experience and background," says Anderson, who is a professor and director of training for the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville's National Research and Training Center for Persons Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. …

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