Gallaudet Protesters Claim Victory

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Gallaudet Protesters Claim Victory

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By: The Associated Press

Date: March 11, 1988

Source: The Associated Press

About the Author: The Associated Press is a worldwide news agency based in New York.


In a milestone action for the deaf civil rights movement, Gallaudet University bowed to pressure in 1988 to appoint the first deaf president in the school's history. Gallaudet, founded in 1864, is the world's only university for the deaf. By picking a deaf president, the trustees sought to demonstrate that the deaf are as capable as the hearing in hopes of increasing job opportunities for the deaf.

When President Jerry C. Lee announced his resignation as president of the University in 1987, leaders in the national deaf community joined with Gallaudet alumni, students, faculty, staff and friends in urging the Board of Trustees to select a deaf person as the University's next president. The Board narrowed the field of candidates to three: Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, a hearing woman; Dr. Harvey Corson, a deaf man; and Dr. I. King Jordan, a deaf man. On March 6, 1988, the Board announced the appointment of Zinser as Gallaudet's next president. Students and their supporters reacted swiftly. They refused to accept the board's decision and instead launched the Deaf President Now! (DPN) protest.

The DPN issued four demands: Zinser's resignation, the appointment of a deaf president, the resignation of the board chairman, and the reorganization of the board to include fifty-one percent deaf memberships. Faculty, staff, alumni and members of deaf communities across the country and abroad backed the DPN in support of the notion that it was time that Gallaudet was led by a deaf person. The six day protest ended when Zinser resigned. The board then selected Gallaudet's eighth—and first deaf—president, I. King Jordan, a Gallaudet graduate. Philip Bravin, another Gallaudet alumnus, subsequently became the first deaf chair of the Board of Trustees.


About 2,500 Gallaudet University students and supporters claimed victory in a Capitol Hill rally Friday after Elisabeth Ann Zinser resigned as president of their school for the deaf, but they vowed to continue their protests until their other demands are met.

Zinser, who is not deaf and does not know sign language, was named to the post last Sunday but announced her resignation early Friday morning after protesters virtually halted all classes this week. Zinser said she had stepped down in response "to this extraordinary social movement of deaf people."

Students and activists marched across the Capitol lawn Friday bearing signs and banners and chanting "Deaf President Now," "No Hearing President," and "Deaf Power." "We're still winning. We're still winning," said student leader Jerry Covell. He said he was pleased that Zinser had resigned, but he urged the students to continue their battle to force out the chairwoman of the university's board of trustees and to gain a majority of deaf members on the board. Currently, only four of the twenty board members are deaf.

Gary Olsen, executive director of the National Association of the Deaf, told the students their protests had helped the cause of deaf people nationwide. "Deaf people want to control their destiny," he said. "We will win. I promise you."

Truman Stelle, a Gallaudet faculty member, said, "It is long past time that Gallaudet had a deaf president, as testimony that deaf people are capable of leading themselves." Stelle said the ouster of board chairwoman Jane Bassett Spilman was important because 'she clearly sees herself as owner of the Gallaudet plantation, answerable to no one."

Gallaudet, the nation's only liberal arts school for the deaf, has never had a deaf president in its 124-year history. Zinser was the only hearing candidate among the three finalists for the presidency. Despite student demonstrations prior to the selection, Zinser was chosen, setting off a week of protests that have closed down the school. The protesters also have attracted supporters around the country, including members of Congress and some presidential candidates.

At a press conference preceding the rally, Spilman and Zinser acknowledged that the deaf students had made their point but Zinser insisted that the siege itself was not the reason she resigned. "What is happening across the country is a civil rights time of the deaf community," Zinser said. "We have responded to that." The protest, she said, was "a very special moment in time for the deaf community. (That) we could not anticipate." She added that the week's events "should provide no lesson to any other college or university that an action like a campus siege will be tolerated." I have responded to this extraordinary social movement of deaf people, not to the demands of the students and protesters. "I concluded that the best way to restore order and return this university to its business of education was to pave the way for the board of trustees to consider the selection of a president who is hearing impaired," she said.

Spilman criticized the "external interests of people who perhaps are not as interested or involved in the day-to-day operations of the Gallaudet and not as well informed as the board and the administration," but did not elaborate. Zinser, who was vice chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had never formally submitted her resignation there, and University of North Carolina system President C.D. Spangler told the school's board of governors Friday that Zinser would be welcome back.

In a speech to students at the Capitol Hill rally, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a member of the Gallaudet board of trustees, said, "You have sensitized our nation to the hopes and dreams of not only the hearing impaired but all handicapped."

During the week of protests, he and fellow board member Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., pressed Zinser and Spilman to find a resolution to the issue. Bonior did not attend the rally, but issued a statement that said Zinser had made a difficult choice. "Her decision is a reflection of her sensitivity to the deaf community and of her true desire to continue moving Gallaudet forward as an outstanding institution for education of the deaf. "The specific challenge to the Gallaudet board of trustees is to select a deaf president as soon as possible. We need further to devise a plan to insure appropriate representation of hearing-impaired and deaf members on the board."

The House Education and Labor Committee's subcommittee on select education, which has jurisdiction over funding for Gallaudet, has scheduled hearings for Tuesday to review the makeup of the board and the controversy over the presidential selection. Three-quarters of the school's $76 million operating budget comes from the federal government. And John Banzhaff, George Washington University law professor and founder of the National Center for Law and the Deaf, has filed a complaint with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights charging the board with unlawful discrimination for never hiring a deaf president.


The deaf rights movement, symbolized by Jordan's ascent and tenure is still establishing itself at the start of the millennium. However, the movement has made enormous advances since 1988. Visual learning is understood and respected as never before while deaf and hard-of-hearing people are earning degrees in unprecedented numbers. Increasingly, many deaf people reject any notion of disability, preferring to view themselves as visually-oriented people. However, the job market for the deaf continues to remain weaker than the market for the hearing.

I. King Jordan retired in 2006, setting off protests across the Gallaudet campus. The trustees selected provost Jane K. Fernandes to replace Jordan, angering many students and faculty. While Fernandes is deaf and would be the first woman president in Gallaudet's history, she grew up speaking and reading lips. As a result, she lacks native fluency in American Sign Language. Many in the Gallaudet community also object to her selection because Fernandes attended mainstream public schools and universities instead of resident schools for the deaf and Gallaudet. Critics view Fernandes as being insufficiently committed to fighting "audism" or discrimination against the deaf both on and off campus. As of May 2006, Fernandes expected to take office. The debate over her selection illustrates the changing definition of what it means to be a deaf person in the twenty-first century.



Christiansen, John B. and Sharon H. Barnartt. Deaf PresidentNow!: The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2003.

Gannon, Jack. The Week the World Heard Galludet. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989.

Lane, Harlan. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York: Vintage Press, 1989.

Web sites

Gallaudet University. "Gallaudet History." <> (accessed May 31, 2006).

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Gallaudet Protesters Claim Victory

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