Black cloud no more?

This article originally appeared in Gallaudet University’s The Buff and Blue’s Oct. 24, 2009 issue.

When I went through my father’s things after his death, I found newspaper clippings about Gallaudet. They were mostly about the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest, but one stood out. It was from 1986, when Gallaudet College became Gallaudet University.

I was surprised that my father had even saved the article. My father, who was academically dismissed from Gallaudet in 1972, was not by any means what we would call a remarkable community leader. Rather, he was quite ordinary; he had an entry-level job with the state and rarely went to deaf events outside of town.

Yet he felt that Gallaudet’s accreditation as a university was noteworthy enough to save a clipping about. This, to me, speaks volumes about the influence of Gallaudet.

Alumni and students alike are constantly bombarded with dazzling publicity about the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf students. Recruiting materials highlight carefully selected students and alumni – each with a determined look or a sunny smile – who come from every cranny and nook of the world. It’s easy to get drawn into how great Gallaudet is and not consider the effects that the university’s antics and accomplishments have upon ordinary people like my father.

Gallaudet had such an impact upon me long before I became a student. When the DPN protest took place, I was a freshman in high school; the protest greatly influenced how hearing peers and “teachers of the hearing impaired” at my high school perceived us deaf students. Years later, I am friends with many of the DPN leaders but I still get starry-eyed around them. Although there are so many more opportunities today that we no longer perceive as remarkable like they were decades ago, I continue to be in awe of so many deaf people and their ordinary and not-so-ordinary accomplishments. This sense of awe is something I hope to never let go of ever again.

I say again because I lost that feeling once, in 2006. The outrage and deep division over the presidential selection in 2006 had been simmering for years. Despite media reports and what some people said, the anger that surfaced wasn’t an overnight thing. In fact, I remember exactly when I began feeling disillusioned about the division at Gallaudet: during my husband’s graduation in 1993.

You see, he was among the wide-eyed freshmen at Gallaudet in 1988 when DPN took place. By 1993, the last of these freshmen had graduated, taking with them the pride and sense of entitlement that DPN had instilled in deaf people everywhere. As I watched the graduation ceremony, I was sad that the DPN veterans wouldn’t be students anymore, because they were the movers and shakers then. They would call the university out on unfair situations, and constantly kept the administration on its toes – but they always made sure everything was done with a positive attitude. I was fortunate to have Mary Malzkuhn – often called the “Mother of DPN” –as my academic adviser and teacher for my government classes, which were filled with many DPN veterans. I learned so much from them and was always excited to be in their presence because they were superstars to me. Watching them march across the stage that day, I wondered if future classes would understand the sparkle that existed immediately after DPN. When I came on campus in 1991, I was blown away by how everyone was so confident about his or her roles at Gallaudet. They had the right to be there and had the right to expect nothing but the very best in communication access, in educational quality, and in respect.

By the time I graduated in 1995, there was a growing black cloud hanging over the university, a cloud of fear. The division between students and the administration was deepening at an alarming rate. I frequently saw faculty and staff being pulled in two directions. People quit or were fired. There was a lot of underground talk about the administration’s intimidation tactics. Still, I was no longer a student so I figured I didn’t need to pay much attention.

A few years later, I finally understood this intimidation firsthand. When I was the editor at Silent News, Ryan Commerson told me that the university was closing the television and film program. I assigned a writer to the story, and she contacted the administration for a statement. She got a response that essentially freaked her out, and she forwarded it to me in a panic. I read the e-mail and was astonished by the contents.

The e-mail threatened Silent News with a lawsuit if we proceeded with the story. The writer hadn’t even asked any hard-hitting questions. What had started as a somewhat dull news story was now a controversy. This was a signal that something was terribly wrong at the university, that this was a politically fueled approach by the administration. I responded and said that this was Gallaudet’s opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about the program’s closure (or as they called it, merger with another program). The administration’s response remained unchanged: that a lawsuit would be filed if we went ahead with the story.

Not one who easily backs down, I gave the go-ahead to run the story. Just as I had predicted, the lawsuit was an empty threat. But that e-mail exchange was the perfect indicator of what was to come, especially considering how an administrator involved in that e-mail exchange was at the center of the storm in 2006.

Regardless of what people felt about the 2006 protest, it was a catalyst for change, one that was and is desperately needed. Although bitterness is rampant in the blogsphere/vlogsphere, I sense that most people are ready for positive change. At least, I know I am. This positive change is part of why President Davila has been so warmly welcomed and so successful in taking care of business. More importantly, he has brought back something that was missing for too long: integrity.

Whoever the new president is – at the time of this writing, the president hadn’t been announced yet – he or she must strengthen this integrity immediately. The new president must ensure that the faculty, staff, students and alumni can see this integrity in action.  These groups must be inspired to carry the same integrity and pride in our identity, our language, and our culture.

I’m optimistic that any one of the four candidates will help dissolve the black cloud that has hung over Gallaudet for at least a decade. Having said that, it is crucial that the new president be a mover and shaker, unafraid to create an ideological change that brings back the pride we once had. For me, what will affirm that the new president is doing the job is when ordinary citizens begin saving clippings about Gallaudet’s accomplishments once again.

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