Deaf President Now and the Struggle for Deaf Control of Gallaudet University

By Armstrong, David F. | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Deaf President Now and the Struggle for Deaf Control of Gallaudet University


Armstrong, David F., Sign Language Studies


I have two basic goals for this article:1 First, I discuss some of the historical background of the protest that resulted in the appointment of I. King Jordan as the first deaf president of Gallaudet in 1988. The 1988 protest did not simply appear out of nowhere-it had historical roots, and that history had an impact on what followed Jordan's appointment. Second, I discuss the continuing nature of the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement at Gallaudet-it did not end in 1988, and forces that were set in motion then continue today. Much of what I discuss in this article is based on my personal experience. During my thirty years of service at Gallaudet, I had an opportunity to work under all but three of its ten presidents. I began working at Gallaudet in 1980, first in planning and institutional research, then as the university's chief budget officer and liaison to the U.S. Department of Education. I served in those roles from 1987 until 2007, during the entire Jordan administration. I was the director of the Gallaudet University Press from 2007 until I retired in 2010. In these roles, and especially as budget director, I became familiar with much of Gallaudet's administrative operations and relations with the federal government. For the next two years I worked on a sesquicentennial history of the university, which was published in 2014. In the course of preparing this narrative I have had the good fortune to work with a number of people who are very knowledgeable about Gallaudet's history, including Jack and Rosalyn Gannon and Michael Olson, and I also had access to historical research compiled by Brian Greenwald and John Vickrey Van Cleve, as well as extensive web-based information about alumni prepared by the Alumni Office under the direction of Sam Sonnenstrahl.

When I started working at Gallaudet in 1980, it was a very different place from what it is today. No deaf person had ever served as president or chief academic officer. The board had a large majority of hearing members, a large majority of Gallaudet's employees were also hearing people, and educational policy was thus determined by hearing people. According to a report the university submitted to the Commission on Education of the Deaf in 1987, only 25 percent of the total workforce was deaf, and only 18 percent of administrators were deaf. However, by the early 1980s, events had begun to occur that would eventually lead to large-scale change.

American deaf people, of course, have a very long history of organizing and creating self-help and advocacy organizations, such as the National Association of the Deaf. At least modest levels of resistance to hearing domination at Gallaudet also had a long history. Gallaudet archivist Mike Olson, for example, has documented deaf resistance in the 188os to the selection of a hearing sculptor, Daniel Chester French, to execute the statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet on the university campus. In this case, the opposition was to a decision by no less than E. M. Gallaudet himself.2 Through the years the Gallaudet alumni association was active in seeking representation on the board, which until 1951 had included only hearing people. In that year, a Gallaudet graduate, Boyce Williams, was appointed to the board. However, in 1988 it was still the case that only four out of nineteen board members were deaf.

With the retirement of Edward C. Merrill Jr. as president in 1983, active support by leaders of the Deaf community for the appointment of a deaf president materialized. Merrill himself wrote to the board suggesting that he be replaced by a deaf person.3 To this end Merrill had followed a conscious approach of appointing deaf people to high-level administrative positions.This included the appointment of Thomas Mayes as Gallaudet s first deaf vice president, albeit in the area of continuing education and advocacy, not in the university's central academic program. Robert R. Davila was subsequently appointed vice president of the university's precollege programs. …

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