Listening as a Board: Lessons Learned from Deaf President Now
“The problem is that not that the students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen.” – Rev. Jesse Jackson.
So much work done by volunteers at the board level is never directly seen in public. This is because when the work of the board is done well, the organization runs seamlessly; it’s rare for the board to be in the spotlight. It is rarer still for a board to make major international news, cause riots or to be involved in conversations on social justice. All this makes the time when the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees pulled focus during the Deaf President Now incident that much more interesting.
An institute of learning
Gallaudet University has been the premier institute of deaf education in North America since it was authorized to confer degrees in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln. As a post-secondary institution, they have a governance structure similar to most other nonprofit organizations in countries with a basis in British common law.
A board of governors/directors/trustees make high level strategy and policy decisions which set the tone at the top. The board hires a sole staff person, who designs a structure of staff (and/or volunteers) to whom they delegate out the operational and programmatic work of the organization, based on the direction and controls set by the governors of the institution. As the intermediary between policy and operations that primary staff member has immense power to influence and be a leader in all parts of the institution. That primary staff member is often called an executive director or a CEO. In post-secondary institutions, they’re often given the title of President. And in 1987, the job of President of Gallaudet University had a vacancy.
Deaf education, hearing educators
In order to set the stage for what happened next, it’s important to understand the role of the deaf community as a stakeholder and how that evolved over the 120 years Gallaudet existed. Two streams of education for deaf people had been created over time: manualists (those who encouraged the use and development of manual language, such as American Sign Language) and oralists (instructing deaf students in how to read lips and speak out loud). It may not be surprising to hear that the majority of pure oralists in deaf education and policy work were people who were fully hearing. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and instructor for the deaf, strongly advocated (as did other oralists) to suppress sign language in order to force deaf students to communicate in a manner that was easier for the hearing community.
Oralism began dominating deaf education in the 1880s, and by 1919 most teachers of deaf children were hearing, using the oral method. Deaf children saw few deaf role models, as deaf teachers were thought to be less effective in being able to correct the speech of deaf children. It’s worth noting that Edward Gallaudet, as the founder of his school, supported the use of sign language. Sign languages are just that – language. And with language comes culture. Gallaudet was a centre of deaf culture in America.
Time for a deaf president?
By the time President Jerry C. Lee retired in August 1987 as the head of Gallaudet, the school was an accredited university. More than 100 deaf people had doctorates. Other deaf people were successful professionals and administrators. Yet no deaf person had ever run the institute. An advocacy group of deaf staff and faculty members, the President’s Council on Deafness, had formed due to concerns that an administration of mainly hearing people would sometimes overlook the needs of deaf students, staff and stakeholders. This group, students and community members, were building momentum: they felt it was time to have a deaf president of Gallaudet.
Between October 1987 and February 1988, the committee narrowed the 87 applicants for the President’s job to 12, then six, and finally three candidates: two deaf men and one hearing woman. They announced the finalists to the public.
By the time the board was ready to make their final interviews, momentum behind selecting a deaf president was building nationwide. Vice President George Bush and several influential senators and civil rights activists endorsed the idea: if Gallaudet found no deaf people qualified enough to run their institution, who could trust deaf people with high positions?
According to Doctor I King Jordan, one of those three finalists, the interview’s structure was not deaf friendly. The space they chose to use was long and echoed, while the candidates sat relatively far away from the interviewers. There was one sign language interpreter assisting with 20 board members interviewing and talking over each other. It was difficult, and perhaps not surprising that the University chose the one hearing finalist: Dr: Elizabeth Zinser. They issued a press release stating they had selected the first female president of Gallaudet.
Immediately upon hearing this news, students (who, by March, were already camping by the hundreds and thousands to rally for a deaf president) began rioting. The board of trustees, already nervous about the unprecedented passion and rallies, were not prepared for the chaos that followed. The board chair, Jane Spilman, admonished the students present at a press conference announcement, for being too loud. She allegedly said, “Deaf people are not able to function in a hearing world.” The students walked out, and the country tuned in.
On the second day of protests, student leaders presented formal demands:
1) The selected (hearing) president, Dr. Elizabeth Zinser, must resign and a deaf president must be selected.
2) Spilman must resign.
3) The Board of Trustees must have at least 51% of its members be deaf.
4) No reprisals against protesters.
This highlights a couple of important lessons for all boards. First off, how important it is to listen to your stakeholders and the community you serve. Prior to the selection of the president, the deaf community and alumni of Gallaudet put a great deal of effort into encouraging a deaf president. The board had put deaf people on the search committee (though not the final interview process, which was with the entire board). This made the seeming rejection of their preference for a deaf president seem all the worse, as they had believed they had been listened to in the past.
Secondly, it is very difficult for a group who are not impacted by big issues or barriers to judge what is appropriate for the people who live through them on their behalf. Many disability rights’ activists rally under the phrase, “nothing about us, without us.” How different would the interview process have been had it been designed by mainly deaf trustees? This isn’t to say that the people on the board were morally bad or did not truly believe they were making the right decisions: just that they did not have the capacity to see the whole picture necessary to make a fully informed decision.
Third, although the board’s role is to govern and direct the whole of the structure of an organization, it cannot do so in a vacuum or without understanding that they hold both a great deal of power and responsibility in the work of an organization. Every single faculty member joining the rallies did so understanding they could lose their livelihoods. Every student knew they could be barred from the one place designed to give them an education. When an issue is important enough to a person to risk their whole future, it bears listening to find how to keep the urgency from becoming so high next time.
The protests resulting from the appointment of Dr. Zinser gained media attention from across the world. Protestors linked their actions to civil rights movements, and through their articulate interviews with media as well as their passion, proved to the world that deaf people can do anything that hearing people can – except hear, and there are tools to mitigate that. Eight days after the announcement, the Board held another press conference. This time it was to announce that all the protest’s demands would be met – including naming Dr. Jordan as the first deaf president of Gallaudet University.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this story – and what makes it worth celebrating – is that it is not just the story of a mistake made by a group of governors. Deaf President Now (or DPN, as the incident is known) was a catalyst for greater representation in wider culture. It proved to deaf young people that they don’t have to accept restrictions. It sparked conversations about the very nature of disability, up to and including changing public policy and laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and many other bills providing rights and access were passed after DPN brought these issues into the public consciousness. Many news organizations immediately started close captioning when deaf viewers wrote in to say they couldn’t access information about this issue so important to them.
To dig deeper into this story, you can dive into the Gallaudet website:
You can also listen to Dr. King speaking about the experience on the BBC podcast, Witness: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvtx9
Or listen to the podcast summary (and read the transcript) by Stuff you Missed in History Class: https://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/deaf-president-now.htm
And if you know of any other interesting events where board governance and history collide, let us know!