Standing Up for DiversityAs a university established
for deaf students, Gallaudet’s diversity initiatives seek to further empower and enlighten its community.
By Phaedra Brotherton
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.
Examples of diversity issues within the deaf and hearing communities on campus include:
• Tensions due to the type and degree of hearing loss;
• Deafness as opposed to being hard of hearing;
• Language preferences — those preferring American Sign Language as opposed to other types of sign language systems;
• School backgrounds — students coming from schools primarily for the deaf and those coming from mainstream public schools that are primarily for hearing students; and
• Status differences between those who are hearing and those who are deaf.
Since the DPN, the board has had a majority of members who are deaf or hard of hearing. Before the DPN protest, only four members of the board were deaf and “two were persons of color who rarely attended meetings,” says Anderson.
The diverse makeup of the board reflects the diversity of Gallaudet’s student body (see chart, pg 27). These “traditionally underrepresented groups” make up roughly 23 percent of the undergraduate population. They make up about 15 percent of graduate students.
Dunn adds that Gallaudet faces the same racial problems common in society in general. “We, too, face individuals who have values they learned in their homes and neighborhoods, and just because we’re deaf does not mean we are free of biases,” he says.
The Office for Diversity and Community Relations provides a variety of training sessions in diversity, multiculturalism and employment/human resources law, which are open to staff, faculty and students. The office is also responsible for EEO administration.
Currently the office is planning a session on religious diversity and a deaf awareness month program to “explore the rich diversity within the deaf community itself,” says Dunn.
Examples of awareness programs held for the entire university include: “Understanding White Privilege,” “Inside the Mind of Racism,” “The President’s Dialogue on Race” and a “Student Dialogue on Race.”
The Office for Diversity and Community Relations often works hand in hand with the Office of Multicultural Student Programs, which was started in 1993. The office, led by K.P. Perkins, works with the various student organizations, including the Black Deaf Student Union, African Student Union, Asian-Pacific Association and the Hispanic Deaf Association to coordinate many cultural events that focus on the issues of race, ethnicity and culture.
Many of the cultural programs have an educational dimension. For example, students often have the opportunity to discuss work with the artists involved at activities such as the Frederick Douglass One Man Show, Cambodian Heritage Dancers, and the Kan Kouran African Dancers and Drummers.
“We sponsor things that are appealing to students and open to the community,” says Perkins. “We try to complement what is going on academically.”
One initiative that is popular and directly connects with the Black community is the Black Gospel Signing Concert. “We connect with a lot of churches that have a deaf ministry,” says Perkins. “Music is played and deaf and hearing people sign. It’s beautiful,” she says.
The Gospel Signing Concert, held during the Christmas season, is a major outreach activity to the Black community, which Perkins feels has little knowledge of deaf culture.
“I would love to see more awareness of Black deaf folk,” says Perkins, who has studied Black deaf women in depth. “We are not far from Howard. So many generally don’t have awareness (of deafness and the Black community), unless someone has a deaf person in their family.”
Board chairman Anderson says the board also needs to be involved in promoting diversity issues because the board “must lead by example.
“We are not only dealing with racial/ethnic and cultural differences, but also issues unique to being deaf in today’s world. As such, I believe it is important that the board itself model diversity and through its leadership convey to the campus that diversity is a major issue that must be addressed by the entire university community.”
The board of trustees has recently established an Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity, which will look at how other boards address and work on diversity initiatives at the policy level.
Similar to many colleges and universities across the country, one of Gallaudet’s diversity-related challenges is that of recruiting faculty of color, which make up 7 percent of the faculty.
“Academic departments are working very hard to attract faculty who reflect the diversity of students,” says Jordan. “Given the pool of potential faculty of color is small nationwide and that teaching at Gallaudet requires the additional ability to communicate in sign language, it is a challenge to compete successfully with all the other institutions of higher education which are trying to diversify their faculties.”
The university is in the beginning stages of conducting a climate study “that will, among several outcomes, enable us to determine how well we have done in promoting diversity, trust and collaboration within the Gallaudet community,” notes Jordan.
Late last month, Gallaudet was preparing to sponsor a discussion “A Time for Dialogue” to explore the tragic events that occurred Sept. 11. The plan was to include information and discussion on how religious beliefs, historical events and political realities converged in such a tragic way.
In addition, all the fields related to mental health and the counseling center will help students, faculty and staff come to grips with what occurred, says Jordan.
After a challenging year that catapulted Gallaudet into the media spotlight when two students were murdered on campus (see Black Issues, Feb. 15), Jordan was able to report good news in a recent address to the university in September.
Last June, the school received notification that the Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools had awarded it full accreditation for the next 10 years. For a school that has had challenges in the past related to preparing its students with reading and writing skills necessary to compete in a hearing world, this was a great achievement.
But while the report praised the university programs in various areas, Jordan shared a postscript written by the accreditation team that seems to sum up the spirit of the school’s efforts: “Every college these days has a mission statement; Gallaudet actually has a mission.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com