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Gallaudet University Selects First Jewish President

Gallaudet University, the university for the hearing-impaired which is located in Washington, D.C., recently announced the election of the school’s first-ever Jewish president. The position of president at Gallaudet is a notoriously intense one, as issues related to deafness, disability, … Read More

By / October 30, 2009

Gallaudet University, the university for the hearing-impaired which is located in Washington, D.C., recently announced the election of the school’s first-ever Jewish president. The position of president at Gallaudet is a notoriously intense one, as issues related to deafness, disability, and identity play a heavy role at the all-sign-language institution of higher education. (Full disclosure: both of my parents are Gallaudet alums.)

Dr. T. Alan Hurwitz, who is deaf, will leave his position as president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (a college within the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state) to come to Gallaudet (which its students affectionately refer to as "Gally").  Hurwitz’s election was met with approval from the school’s students, 90 percent of whom are either deaf or hearing impaired. Hurwitz, a native of Iowa who has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Rochester, has been active in many Deaf organizations and committees.

Gallaudet’s student body has an unusually large say in who will lead their school. In 1988, when then-president Jerry Lee announced that he was stepping down, a search began for his replacement. Gallaudet’s board of directors selected a hearing candidate – Dr. Elisabeth Zinser – over an equally qualified deaf one – Dr. I. King Jordan – to replace him. The student body, led by several outspoken students with great pride in the Deaf community, protested Zinser’s appointment. They held pickets at the university and received a huge amount of media attention. Before 1988, there were many people in America who had no idea that Gallaudet even existed. The school, which was founded in TKTK, was largely funded by the government, and most of the members of its board knew little to nothing about deaf culture or sign language. During that week, dubbed Deaf President Now (DPN for short), Gallaudet’s students – and the Deaf community at large – realized how much Gallaudet served not only as a university but as a central symbol for all hearing-impaired individuals. As one popular sign pointed out, aligning hearing-impaired individuals with other minorities in America (including the Jews):

 

It’s time! In 1842, a Roman Catholic became president of the University of Notre Dame. In 1875, a woman became president of Wellesley College. In 1886, a jew became president of Yeshiva University. In 1926, a black person became president of Howard University. AND in 1988, the Gallaudet University presidency belongs to a deaf person.

 

After what one Gally professor called "The Week the World Heard Gallaudet," Dr. Zinser stepped down from her new position, saying that she realized she was on the wrong side of history. Quite simply, it was the time for the university of the deaf to have a president who was one of them. Dr. I. King Jordan was named the new president, and became a hero to the Deaf community.

When Jordan announed his retirement in 2006, Jane Fernandes was chosen as his replacement to the almost-universal dismay of Gallaudet students. Fernandes, who is hearing-impaired, was sent to mainstream schools by her parents. She did not become interested in Deaf culture until later in her life, and learned American Sign Language as an adult. Many rumors circulated that Fernandes’ unpopularity with Gally students was the result of her being considered "not deaf enough." Lest we think that we as Jews have a monopoly on identity politics and arguments about who does and doesn’t qualify to be part of our community, Gallaudet is the center of many ongoing discussions related to this topic, which includes the degree of one’s hearing ability, whether one has deaf parents, and whether one prefers to sign or speak (the oral method). 

So far, Dr. Hurwitz’s deaf bona fides have passed muster. And he’s a member of the Tribe as well. As for how the 66-year-old will do in his new job? That remains to be seen. He will formally be inducted as Gallaudet’s president in January.

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