A Storm at Gallaudet
Why is National Deaf History Month celebrated from March 13 through April 15 instead of during a traditional calendar month? National Deaf History Month begins on March 13, the date in 1988 when Gallaudet University, a research university for the deaf and hearing impaired, hired its first deaf president. It ends on April 15, the anniversary of the opening of the United States’ first school for the deaf in 1817. This National Deaf History Month, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation remembers the turmoil of 1988 that launched Gallaudet University – and deaf culture – into a new era.
What is now Gallaudet University was founded on April 4, 1864 as a grammar school for deaf and blind children. It has evolved into the world’s only university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
In early 1988, as the Gallaudet University board of trustees was interviewing candidates to become the seventh president of the university, students, alumni, and others were calling for a “Deaf President Now.” On March 6, 1988, the Gallaudet board of trustees announced the selection of Elisabeth Zinser, a hearing candidate, over two deaf male finalists. Students immediately began to protest, quickly demanding the replacement of Zinser, the resignation of the chair of the board of trustees, a reconfiguration of that board with at least 51 percent deaf members, and no retaliation against any student or faculty protesters.
On March 7, students barricaded buildings on Gallaudet’s campus, burned effigies of the board chair and Zinser, and even chained the gates to the campus. The protests expanded beyond campus to include marches to a downtown Washington, DC hotel where the board of trustees were staying, and the U.S. Capitol, capturing national attention. Zinser’s tenure did not last a week; she stepped down on March 10. On March 13, the board of trustees announced that I. King Jordan had been selected as the first deaf president of Gallaudet.
This protest, the first of its kind, elevated the voices of deaf people and signified to many the power of such unity in this community. Many have claimed that it changed the way that deaf people think about themselves and how the world views deaf people.
For additional information about National Deaf History Month, Gallaudet University, and the student protest that led to the hiring of the university’s first deaf president, please visit these additional resources: