Deaf President Now

Deaf President Now

Deaf President Now (DPN) was a student protest at Gallaudet University. The university, established by an act of Congress in 1864 to serve the Deaf, had always been led by a hearing president. The protest began on March 6, 1988 when the Board of Trustees announced its decision to appoint a hearing person as its seventh president.[1]

Gallaudet students, backed by a number of alumni, staff, and faculty, shut down the campus. Protesters barricaded gates, burned effigies, and gave interviews to the press demanding four specific concessions from the Board. The protest ended on March 13 with the appointment of I. King Jordan, a Deaf man, as university president.



Deaf students at Gallaudet began campaigning for a Deaf president when Jerry C. Lee, who had been president since 1984, resigned in 1987.[2] Students supporting the selection of a Deaf president participated in a large rally on March 1.

For the rally, Gallaudet alumnus John Yeh underwrote a good deal of the costs of the rally, including bales of fliers and thousands of buttons that read "Deaf President Now." Many other alumni participated in the events as well. A candlelit vigil was held on March 5. The board of trustees considered three finalists: University of North Carolina at Greensboro assistant chancellor Elisabeth Zinser, who is not Deaf; I. King Jordan, Gallaudet's Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who went Deaf at age 21 due to a motorcycle accident; and Harvey Corson, president of a Louisiana residential school, who had been born Deaf.

On March 6, 1988, the board announced the selection of Zinser, the only hearing candidate, as the university's seventh president.


The protesters presented the Board of Trustees with four demands:

  • Zinser's resignation and the selection of a Deaf person as president;
  • the immediate resignation of Jane Bassett Spilman, chair of the board of trustees (who, it was alleged, announced the board's choice with the comment that "the Deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world");
  • the reconstitution of the board of trustees with a 51% majority of Deaf members (at the time, it was composed of 17 hearing members and four Deaf);
  • no reprisals against any students or staff members involved in the protest.

Monday, March 7

Students barricaded the campus gates using heavy-duty bicycle locks and hot-wired school buses, moving them in front of the gates and letting the air out of the tires. The locked gates kept people from coming onto campus grounds while forcing the Board of Trustees to come and receive the protesters' demands. The Board ignored the demands, and following an unsuccessful student/Board discussion, the supporters of DPN took their first march to the Capitol Building.[3] The protest was led for the most part by four students, Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus.

Tuesday, March 8

Students continued to rally on campus, burning effigies of Zinser and Spillman. The crowd continued to grow, while the protest for a Deaf president persisted.[3]

Wednesday, March 9

In light of spring break, the students refused to allow Gallaudet to reopen, claiming that they wouldn't open the gates until they were given a Deaf president first. Consequently, the students decided to stay at school during spring break. That day, Zinser said, "It is the role of the Board to choose a president and to replace a president," stirring outrage in the protesters. Later that evening, Hlibok, along with Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, was interviewed on NBC Nightly News.[3]

That night, Ted Koppel, host of ABC's Nightline, interviewed some of the major protesters.[4]

Thursday, March 10

Students met with Zinser. She agreed to the second and fourth demands of the students, but that did not satisfy the protesters. They stated that Gallaudet needed to stand as a role model for Deaf people and other Deaf schools, a goal easier accomplished with a Deaf president. Meanwhile, in the University's interpreter/communication center, hearing protesters received phone calls from businesses, friends and anonymous donations of money, food and other supplies to aid the protest. Other help outside the Deaf community came from worker unions. Moe Biller, then president of the American Postal Workers Union, shared his support for the protest. One of the protest's most important turn of events was delivered in a speech by Jordan, who proclaimed, "I only have anger towards the decision of the board. We need to focus the world's attention on the larger issue. The four demands are justified. Zinser resigned."[3]

Friday, March 11

Protesters numbering over 2,500 marched on Capitol Hill, holding a banner that read, "We still have a dream!"[3]

Sunday, March 13

The four demands were met and Jordan was selected as the new president. Phil Bravin, who was Deaf, was appointed chairperson of the Board since Spilman had resigned. Students, faculty and staff celebrated in Gallaudet's field house.[3]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Christiansen, John B. & Barnartt, Sharon N. "Deaf President Now!: The 1988 revolution at Gallaudet University". Gallaudet University Press, Washington D.C., 1995. Excerpts on Google Books
  3. ^ a b c d e f Deaf Mosaic: Gallaudet University's Television Program, 1988.
  4. ^ Koppel, Ted, host. 1988. Nightline, "Deaf Students Protest," March 9, 1988, (Transcript, Show No. 1773), New York: ABC News.
  • Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A journey into the world of the Deaf. Harper Perennial, 1989. ISBN 0-06-097347-1.
  • Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Random House, 1993.
  • Gannon, Jack R. "The Week the World Heard Gallaudet". Gallaudet University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-930323-54-8. Excerpts on Google Books
  • Deaf President Now contemporaneous letters and press releases, February-March 1988. (Download PDF file:

External links

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