Deaf Student Body Welcomes New College President

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing — has selected T. Alan Hurwitz as its new president, the school announced Sunday. Hurwitz steps into the role amid several challenges at the school, including a student body struggling to make use of hearing implants, low literacy rates and a disconnect faced by graduates between hearing and deaf societies. Alexander Abenchuchan, student editor of Gallaudet's campus newspaper, and Harlan Lane, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Northeastern University, discuss higher education challenges within deaf communities.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, three views of the way we live now online. Social media refuseniks, the role of race in cyber dating, and one writer who calls social media just another refuge for slackers, all that's coming up later in the program.

But first, there's a new president in place at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. It's the world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Yesterday, the school's board of trustees announced their selection of T. Alan Hurwitz, the respected leader of the National Institute for the Deaf as Gallaudet's 10th president. Hurwitz signed the audience after being named and his comments were spoken by an interpreter.

Mr. T. ALAN HURWITZ (President, Gallaudet University): (Through interpreter) The recognition of sign language is critical to the rights of deaf people because having that recognition allows people in other countries who are deaf to advance, and to find themselves on par with other individuals who can hear.

MARTIN: The post of Gallaudet University president comes with responsibilities off campus as well as on. Hurwitz now becomes a central figure in the deaf community, a leader of deaf culture and society, if you will. Hurwitz's selection was lauded by students and faculty. It was a sharp contrast to presidential selections in years past that have sparked walk-outs and large protests.

We wanted to know more about the challenges and opportunities the new president will face. So, last Friday, we called on Harlan Lane. He's a professor of psychology and linguistics at Northeastern University and the author of many books about deaf culture and education. He joined us from his home in Boston. And here in our studio in Washington, we were joined by Alexander Abenchuchan. He's a student at Gallaudet and the editor-in-chief of the school's student newspaper, The Buff and Blue.

We should also mention that Alexander is deaf, and we spoke with him through an interpreter. We began our conversation by asking Professor Lane to review some of the past presidential appointments that have sparked so much controversy and to talk about why feelings about Gallaudet presidents run so high?

Professor HARLAN LANE (Psychology and Linguistics, Northeastern University): Well, I think part of it is the ownership of Gallaudet, if you will, by so many different individuals and groups. It's not just American deaf who feel a sense of propriety, but also all the hearing relatives and friends that they have. And then as you alluded to, Gallaudet's a beacon for deaf people around the world. So if you're deaf, and you really care about the well-being of deaf people and their prosperity, you're bound to care about Gallaudet.

MARTIN: Alexander, how do the students feel about the finalists this time? As we are speaking, the board is poised to make a decision among four people. One is the current provost at Gallaudet, one is the director of the National Center and Deafness at California State University, one is the superintendent and CEO of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, and one is the president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. So, how do the students feel about this panel of finalists?

Mr. ALEXANDER ABENCHUCHAN (Editor-In-Chief, The Buff and Blue): (Through interpreter) I think that students and professors alike feel confident that any of those four candidates could have done very well in the position.

MARTIN: There were a lot of people outside of Gallaudet, who interpreted the controversy over Jane Fernandes as being one over who is deaf enough. Do you think that's accurate?

Mr. ABENCHUCHAN: (Through interpreter) I think that that was a spin that happened within the media. It wasn't really about who was deaf enough. Our current president, Dr. Robert Davila, is himself not someone that we would claim as being 100 percent proficient in American sign language, but he represents us well. And although Dr. Fernandes is deaf and signs, we didn't feel that she was a representative of the deaf community, and I think that that was more the heart of the issue.

MARTIN: Professor Lane, what do you think about that?

Prof. LANE: Well, I agree with what Alex has said. That was my perception from off-campus that there were doubts about Jane Fernandes' leadership. But I think it wouldn't be quite accurate to say that it was utterly devoid of some - at least some or part of some students and faculty of some strong feeling that look this is Gallaudet. This is the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world. And for those students who are part of the minority that uses American Sign Language, who's really like an ethnic group, for them, as for other ethnic groups, this land is heritage land. It's very important to their sense of themselves and their future.

So, I think, those students were at the heart of the 1988 Gallaudet Revolution, and at the least showed the students of 2006 that where there's a student determination for reform, it can succeed.

MARTIN: So, I want to ask each of you and, Professor Lane, I'll start with you. What are the major challenges that the new president will face, whoever he or she turns out to be? What are the major things that the communities want this president to take on? And I imagine there might be different opinions about that. So, Professor Lane, why don't you start?

Prof. LANE: Well, they're numerous and daunting, in fact. For one thing, most deaf students today enter the university from mainstream programs. So, many of them are not used to the world of the deaf. And for some, that will be a huge and liberating discovery. For others, they will struggle with using the language. So, the diversity of the student group, there are also most such institutions in America, the schools for the deaf, have moved toward incorporating more multiple-handicapped students. So the diversity of the student body has one challenge, another is the fact that Gallaudet is a federally funded university. So, the president has to think not only about what's right for my institution, but also what's going to be acceptable and workable with the Congress.

MARTIN: Alexander, what do the students hope to see with the new president? What are the particular challenges to take on?

Mr. ABENCHUCHAN: (Through interpreter) We want to position the university in a good way so that many of us will have good future opportunities working in the hearing world. And sometimes that position is quite fragile. Gallaudet is the only place in the world where we can be completely normal. Often, we grow up in a world that is hearing. And at Gallaudet, we're just regular people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm joined by Harlan Lane, professor of psychology and linguistics at Northeastern University, and Alexander Abenchuchan. He's editor-in-chief of Gallaudet University's newspaper The Buff and Blue. We're talking about the state of deaf education in America and the challenges and opportunities Gallaudet's new president will face.

You know, it sounds to me when I hear you talk about this, it sounds to me in the way many people look on the role of the HBCUs, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which is that you provide kind of a respite in a place where you feel, how can I put this? You can relax in a way for a couple of years and not constantly have to think about your identity as a deaf person, but then you also want to be prepared to go out into the world and do whatever you want to do.

But what does that mean that you want from the president? Is it you want to focus on strengthening academic programs, or do you want to be, you know, highly visible in the hearing world as an ambassador, or both?

Mr. ABENCHUCHAN: (Through interpreter) Oh, certainly both. Yeah, certainly both. We would love to be able to raise the education at Gallaudet University to higher and higher standards, we always think about that. And then we also want to be honest about the challenges that deaf people do face, and make the world a better place for deaf people.

MARTIN: Professor Lane, what about that, you know, what - in fact, you've written a book contending that the hearing world should not look at deaf people as having a disability, and I'm sure for some hearing people that's perhaps counterintuitive. But you draw the analogy of being deaf as like being part of an ethnic group. Can you talk more about that?

Prof. LANE: Well, I do propose that way in rethinking this minority because, first of all, the properties of the minorities that are the properties of an ethnic group, but most of all language. To put it very concisely, I think the fact that the deaf world shares language brought with it the sharing of a culture and a history of struggle. And the hereditary roots of the deaf world in America today are very important. I think the disability model has not served many deaf people very well.

MARTIN: But what about with all the new technology that is now available? In the last century, there was this debate over manualist versus oralist learning styles, the use of sign versus teaching of deaf people to read lips and communicate orally. And then now, of course, I think there's this big debate over the use of technology. How is that changing the conversation about education in Gallaudet?

Prof. LANE: My perception is that it hasn't changed all that much, I'm sorry to say. Cochlear implants, which deaf youngsters increasingly receive nowadays, are a measure to get them to speak and hear. And that has always been the program of those who are oralists, dating back to the 16th century, in fact. So, there's a new tool but it's the same agenda.

MARTIN: Alexander, what do you think about that? And I'm mindful of the fact that technology changes the way hearing people communicate. I mean, I can't tell you how many times we send an email to each other across the room, instead of just getting up to go and speak to someone. So what, what's your thought about this?

Mr. ABENCHUCHAN (Through interpreter): Yes, I want to make sure that people understand that a cochlear implant does not cure deafness immediately. That even though the person maybe able to hear things that they weren't able to hear before, it doesn't fully integrate them into the hearing world. That takes a great deal of training, a great deal of therapy, a great deal of practice and it can be very frustrating.

MARTIN: Professor Lane, finally, we've been talking a lot about deaf education in the United States, but you did mention that the president of Gallaudet has this international platform. So, I did want to ask, what are the current trends in deaf education around the world? And how does deaf education in the U.S. compare to education systems in other countries? And is the new president expected to be a player in that?

Prof. LANE: Well, I certainly hope the new president will be a player in that. And that means that Gallaudet will be a player in that. We mustn't abandon all the deaf children and adults in the world who can profit by what Gallaudet has to offer. Not only by bringing them to Gallaudet, but by inspiring institutions in their country. You know, there are a few countries ahead of us, I would say, in deaf education, particularly in the Nordic countries. But for most of the world, what a deaf child is allowed to accomplish depends on what they think a deaf child can accomplish.

So, in Burundi, for example, in Africa, there are no deaf children in the regular school system because it's obvious to everyone that a deaf child couldn't go to school. In France and other countries, until very recently, it was obvious that a deaf child could go to elementary school but they couldn't really go to high school, it would have to be some kind of technical training.

And so, when America has this liberal arts university for the deaf, this sends a message around the world that deaf people can achieve what hearing people can achieve if you allow it, if you create the institutions that permit it. So, that's the heavy worldwide burden on Gallaudet's shoulders.

MARTIN: Harlan Lane is a professor of psychology and linguistics at Northeastern University. He's also the author of several books on the deaf, deaf culture and education, including "The People of the Eye." He was kind enough to join us from Boston. And here in our Washington, D.C., studio, Alexander Abenchuchan. He's a student at Gallaudet and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Buff and the Blue. We also want to thank Phyllis Rogers(ph) for interpreting. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. ABENCHUCHAN (Through interpreter): Thank you.

Prof. LANE: Goodbye, Michel. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.