I. King Jordan: Reflections on a Changing Culture Gallaudet University's first deaf president is stepping down after 18 years. In a Q & A, he spoke with NPR's Joseph Shapiro about his legacy, and how the DPN movement changed and energized the deaf community

I. King Jordan: Reflections on a Changing Culture

I. King Jordan on May 13, 1988, the day he was appointed as the university's president. Yoon K. Lee/Gallaudet University hide caption

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Yoon K. Lee/Gallaudet University

With the board of trustees's announcement that a hearing woman would be the university's new president, students took over the campus gates in a "Deaf President Now" protest. Yoon K. Lee/Gallaudet University hide caption

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Yoon K. Lee/Gallaudet University

I. King Jordan, the first deaf person to lead an American university, took up his presidency at Gallaudet amidst a storm. In the days before his March 13, 1988 appointment, students had shut the campus in Washington, D.C. down, locking its gates with heavy chains. They called it the "Deaf President Now" (DPN) movement.

The university's board of trustees had selected as president Elisabeth Zinser, a hearing woman and an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Students were angry at the message behind the board's selection: that no deaf person was qualified enough to head their own school.

On the seventh day of the student takeover, the board reversed its decision, appointing Jordan, then a popular Gallaudet dean, as president.

Jordan, at 62, is now stepping down. He spoke with NPR about his legacy, and how the DPN movement changed and energized the deaf community:

Q: How do you hope to be remembered for your presidency?

If I have one main accomplishment, it is that I succeeded. I don't mean to be glib. There were a lot of people who doubted I would succeed. There were a lot of skeptics. When I was named president, people were actually very blunt to me. They said they didn't think I would be president in three years.

If I hadn't succeeded, it would have set back immeasurably the equal rights movement for deaf people and people with disabilities. But because I succeeded, a lot of other people succeeded.

Q: Why did people think you wouldn't succeed?

Nobody had ever done it before. I mean, imagine a deaf person interacting with congressmen and senators. A deaf person flying to New York and meeting with a foundation president and asking that individual to support the university. There was too much skepticism that I could have a meaningful conversation with a senator with an interpreter in the room. People thought, he has no idea what he's getting himself into.

(Editor's Note: Gallaudet gets about 70 percent of its budget from Congress, an amount that comes up for review every year in the annual federal budget.)

Q: Did that skepticism come from other deaf people or the hearing world?

Both deaf people and hearing people. One of the things the Deaf President Now revolution did was change the way deaf people think about ourselves and the way hearing people think about deaf people. We deaf people were too quick to accept limitations that others imposed on. They said you can't do this, you can't do that. And we said OK, because we had never tried, we never did it before. Hearing people saw that we never did certain things, so they assumed we couldn't.

Q: Did the movement and your appointment as president change the way you looked at what deaf people could do?

Absolutely. At a press conference, the day after I had been appointed, the very last question was, "That's well and good for the students, but when you get to the bottom line, what kind of jobs can deaf people do?" And I responded -- just off the seat of my pants -- "Deaf people can do anything except hear." And that became a phrase that has sprouted all over.

Q: So during your time at Gallaudet, you've helped raise students' aspirations and expectations about what they can achieve. When they get out into the hearing world, is it harder than they expect?

I'm glad you used that word, "hard." Sometimes people talk about how easy communication is here, they say it in a pejorative way. But it's supposed to be easy! If you want to understand calculus, that's hard and that should be hard. But understanding your professor? That's not supposed to be hard. So here, we make easy all of the things that should be easy.

Now when students leave, they will find out that what used to be easy is hard. I had four years of graduate school at the University of Tennessee and it was hard. I remember a seminar where we were in a lounge. There was a student who laid on the sofa, pontificating about whatever the issue was, and I'm trying to understand what's going on, who's talking, and I begged the professor, help me with this, and he said, no, he didn't want to mess up the dynamic of the class. So yes, there will be frustrations out there.

Q: The fact that deaf students do now have a choice about what college they want to go to, is that a challenge for Gallaudet?

That's a wonderful example of where I'm split. As a deaf man, I want every deaf high school student to have a choice to go anywhere he wants. Or she. To be able to go to Harvard or the University of Texas or Podunk or anywhere. But as the president of Gallaudet, I want the best and brightest deaf people to come here.

So what we do is demonstrate that you can't get what you get here anywhere else. You sat in on a class and you saw stimulating, fast conversation and discussion. That doesn't work if you're the one deaf person in a class and there's a sign language interpreter there. You really can't participate as an equal.

Q: How has technology made communication easier for deaf people?

It's remarkable, 18 years ago, the local news wasn't captioned, PDAs didn't exist, email was very basic. Now people use Instant Messenger, PDAs, the World Wide Web and video to communicate.

Q: Has that helped people who are deaf break down equality barriers?

Yes it's helped an awful lot. I can text message from here to anywhere in the world, so I'm in touch with people instantly and easily. Eighteen years ago, that didn't happen.