Deaf President Now

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Deaf President Now (DPN) was a student protest in March 1988 at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. The university, established by an act of Congress in 1864 to serve the Deaf, had always been led by a hearing president. The protest began on March 6, 1988, when the Board of Trustees announced its decision to appoint a hearing person as its seventh president.[1][2]

Gallaudet students, backed by a number of alumni, staff, and faculty, shut down the campus. Protesters barricaded gates, burned effigies, and gave interviews to the press demanding four specific concessions from the Board. The protest ended on March 13, 1988, with the appointment of I. King Jordan, a deaf person, as university president.


Gallaudet University was established in 1864 in Washington, D.C. by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet's youngest child, Edward Miner Gallaudet. The college grew out of what had been originally a Deaf school for children, which had been established in 1857. Gallaudet was the world's first university for deaf and hard of hearing students. The historical background, cultural ideologies of the Deaf world, and the richness of the deaf community at this university was what set the stage for the protests that occurred.

Deaf students at Gallaudet began campaigning for a deaf president when Jerry C. Lee, who had been president since 1984, resigned in 1987.[3] The issue lay between the Board of Trustees, which consisted of a majority of hearing members, and the deaf community. There seemed to be doubts that the deaf community could match the abilities and achieve as much as a hearing community. The motivation behind the protest for DPN was not simply about the current election, but about uniting and strengthening deaf students, faculty, and staff. Students supporting the selection of a deaf president participated in the large rally beginning on March 1, 1988.

For the rally, Gallaudet alumnus John Yeh{(later owner of Viable, a Rockville, Maryland company that offered Video Relay Service that allowed deaf people to communicate with hearing parties through the use of interpreters and Web cameras)} underwrote a good deal of the costs of the rally, including bales of fliers and thousands of buttons that read "Deaf President Now". Many other alumni participated in the events as well. A candlelight vigil was held on March 5, 1988. The Board of Trustees considered three finalists: University of North Carolina at Greensboro assistant chancellor Elisabeth Zinser, who is not deaf; I. King Jordan, Gallaudet's Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Harvey Corson, a deaf man serving as the superintendent at the Louisiana School of the Deaf.

The drive behind this protest was not based solely on the initial selection of a new hearing president: the need for a deaf president began when deaf advocacy groups and organizations made it clear well in advance that they wanted a deaf president. Letter-writing endorsement for the cause included people like Vice-President George H. W. Bush and Senators Bob Dole, Bob Graham, Tom Harkin, and Lowell Weicker. The Gallaudet Board of Trustees claimed repeatedly that mainstream society was not "on board" with the idea of a deaf person as an executive leader of a University, despite this public support.

On March 6, 1988, the Board announced the selection of Elisabeth A. Zinser to be the university's seventh president. She had been assistant chancellor at the University of North Carolina, and was the only hearing person out of the three presidential candidates. Due to the strong push for a deaf president to preside over a deaf university, the outcome of this election was met with much opposition.


The protesters presented the Board of Trustees with four demands:

  • Zinser's resignation and the selection of a deaf person as president;
  • the immediate resignation of 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");
  • the reconstitution of the Board of Trustees with a 51% majority of deaf members (at the time, it was composed of 17 hearing members and 4 Deaf members);
  • there would be no reprisals against any students or staff members involved in the protest.

Monday, March 7, 1988

Students barricaded the campus gates using heavy-duty bicycle locks and hot-wired buses, moving them in front of the gates and letting the air out of the tires. The locked gates kept people from coming onto campus grounds while forcing the Board of Trustees to come and receive the protesters' demands. The Board ignored the demands, and following an unsuccessful student/Board discussion, the supporters of DPN took their first march to the Capitol Building.[4] The protest was led for the most part by four students, Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus.

Tuesday, March 8, 1988

Students continued to rally on campus, burning effigies of Zinser and Spilman and the crowd continued to grow.

Wednesday, March 9, 1988

In light of spring break, the students refused to allow Gallaudet to reopen, claiming that they wouldn't open the gates until they were given a deaf president. Consequently, the students decided to stay at school during spring break. That day, Zinser said, "It is the role of the Board to choose a president and to replace a president," stirring outrage in the protesters. Later that evening, Hlibok and Zinser, as well as deaf actress Marlee Matlin, were interviewed about the protest on ABC News' "Nightline" program.[5]

Thursday, March 10, 1988

Students met with Zinser. She agreed to the third and fourth demands of the students, but that did not satisfy the protesters. They stated that Gallaudet needed to stand as a role model for deaf people and other deaf schools, a goal easier accomplished with a deaf president. Meanwhile, in the University's interpreter/communication center, hearing protesters received phone calls from businesses, friends and anonymous donations of money, food and other supplies to aid the protest. Other help outside the deaf community came from worker unions. Moe Biller, then president of the American Postal Workers Union, shared his support for the protest. One of the protest's most important turn of events was delivered in a speech by Jordan, who proclaimed, "I only have anger towards the decision of the Board. We need to focus the world's attention on the larger issue. The four demands are justified. Zinser resigned."[4]

Friday, March 11, 1988

More than 2,500 protesters marched on Capitol Hill, holding banners that said, "We still have a dream!"[4]

Sunday, March 13, 1988

Students, faculty, and staff celebrated in Gallaudet's field house when the four demands were met and I. King Jordan was selected as the new president. During his first press interview after gaining the presidency, Jordan delivered one of his most famous quotes, "Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear." Phil Bravin, who was deaf, was appointed chairperson of the Board since Spilman had resigned.[4] Bravin, who was the first Deaf chair, was appointed as chair of the Lexington School for the Deaf following similar protests in 1994.[6]


Jordan announced his retirement in September 2005 and was criticized in 2006 when he backed Jane Fernandes' candidacy to become his successor. In October 2006, the four DPN student leaders from 1988 issued a public statement, which was harshly critical of both Jordan and Fernandes.[7]


  1. "Deaf President Named, School Yields To Protests", Houston Post, March 13, 1988.
  2. Gallaudet University. Gallaudet press release, Gallaudet University.
  3. Christiansen, John B. and Barnartt, Sharon N. Deaf President Now!: The 1988 revolution at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet University Press, Washington D.C., 1995. Excerpts on Google Books
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Deaf Mosaic: Gallaudet University's Television Program, 1988.
  5. Nightline transcript, host: Ted Koppel, guests: Greg Hlibok, Marlee Matlin, and Elisabeth Ann Zinser.
  6. Jankowski, Katherine A. (1997). Deaf Empowerment: Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric. Gallaudet University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-1-56368-061-8. Retrieved 2 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Manifesto (October 16, 2006) by DPN student leaders.

External links