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Protests Unlikely for Deaf University’s New Leader

WASHINGTON â€” The nation’s premier university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students chose a new president Sunday but the school’s choice isn’t likely to stir the same protests that shut down the campus when a new leader was named three years ago.


Gallaudet University announced Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz would become the 10th president of the nearly 150-year-old school. Hurwitz is currently the president of the National Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y.


The new president will head a school of nearly 1,900 students — about 1,100 of them undergraduates. About 90 percent of the undergraduate students are deaf or hard of hearing.


“I enthusiastically accept this appointment,” he told faculty, students and alumni during an acceptance speech using sign language. “I look forward to beginning my work with all of you.”


He received a standing ovation when his name was announced and the audience waved their hands over their heads in a show of “deaf applause.”


Reaction to the selection was a marked contrast with 2006, when students formed human chains at campus gates to block entry, set up a small tent city and at one point burned an effigy of the chosen president. The candidate at the time, Dr. Jane K. Fernandes, was criticized for her management style and for not learning sign language until she was an adult.


Hurwitz faces challenges when he takes office in January, however. Recruiting and retaining students is becoming more difficult because many deaf children are now mainstreamed at an early age.


Funding is also an issue. Founded in 1864 by Congress, Gallaudet still gets about 70 percent of its budget from federal money. The budget is about $160 million for 2010 but if Congress cuts funding it could jeopardize the school.


Hurwitz acknowledged those challenges in a speech he gave earlier in the year at Gallaudet as one of the four finalists for the job. He said he’d like to partner with other colleges and universities in the area to offer dual-degree programs. Partnering with other schools would let Gallaudet students take pre-med classes, for example, a major that is not offered at the school.


“I believe I can bring Gallaudet to the next level. I’m ready, I’m able and I’m devoted,” he said during the talk.


Hurwitz has spent the past nearly 40 years at Gallaudet’s rival, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and has headed the school since 2003. He is the only finalist who did not earn at least one degree from Gallaudet.


In addition to an approximately $400,000 base salary, the president’s job comes with the keys to the school’s “House One,” a 20-room Victorian mansion where flashing lights go off when the doorbell rings to alert the family someone is outside.


Hurwitz replaces Dr. Robert R. Davila, who took over after the turmoil over Fernandes’ selection. It wasn’t the first time the school has had difficulty choosing a president.


In 1988, students demanded the selection of the school’s first deaf president, protests that led to the selection of Dr. I. King Jordan. It was Jordan’s decision to retire that prompted Fernandes’ selection, which protesters said at the time was made without any input from students or faculty.


This time officials put students and faculty on a presidential search committee and tried to be more inclusive in the process. The school announced its four finalists in September, and each then gave a speech at the university and met with students.


The other finalists were Dr. Roslyn Rosen, formerly Gallaudet’s chief academic officer and now the director of the National Center on Deafness at California State University, Northridge; Dr. Ronald J. Stern, who heads the New Mexico School for the Deaf; and Dr. Stephen F. Weiner, Gallaudet’s provost.


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