Deaf history

Deaf President Now: a student protest and civil rights movement

Gallaudet University (founded in 1864) is the world's only accredited liberal arts university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., which offers programs for the deaf students (and a few signing hearing students) in bilingualism (ASL and English).

The Week the World Heard Gallaudet
Bookcover of The Week the World Heard Gallaudet by Jack R. Gannon, 1989.

A historic mark of Gallaudet University is the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest -- a civil rights movement in 1988. This monumental moment began when the hearing president Jerry C. Lee announced his retirement in 1987.

The Board of Trustees narrowed down to a shortlist of three deaf candidates and three hearing candidates. Then, the final candidates were chosen: two qualified deaf candidates Dr. Harvey Corson and Dr. I. King Jordan and a hearing candidate Dr. Elisabeth Zinser.

Prior to the selection of a president, leaders, supporters, and hearing allies in the Deaf community nationwide joined together to urge the Board of Trustees to select a first deaf president.

They had made a very clear, loud and strong message via letter-writing campaigns, telegrams, messages, discourses, and a March 1st rally of over 1,000 participants on the campus.

This whole thing is not about the first deaf president in 124 years. There is much more than this representation -- a fight against a long history of oppression, ignorance, discrimination, prejudice and so on against deaf people. It's time for the deaf people to take governance of their own.

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.
To show OUR solidarity behind OUR mandate for a deaf president of OUR university, you are invited to participate in a historic RALLY! -- A poster, 1988.

Day 1: Sunday March 6, 1988

The Board of Trustees met at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, D.C. In the evening, the Board announced the appointment of Dr. Elizabeth Zinser as Gallaudet University's next president. The four deaf members and a hearing member voted for the deaf candidate and the rest of the hearing members voted for Dr. Zinser.

Instead of coming to the campus to make an announcement, they sent out press releases. The way they made an announcement and the decision stunned the crowd on the Gallaudet campus and beyond.

The crowd marched down to the hotel to see the Board for an explanation. At that time, Spilman and the Board member were responding to the reporters.

spilman's hands in her pocket at DPN
A screenshot from what is believed to be Deaf Mosaic (Gallaudet TV)

With her hands inside her pockets explained, Ms. Spilman announced "We picked Dr. Elizabeth Ann Zinser as the seventh president of Gallaudet because she is very talented educator who..." She was interrupted by someone who asked, "Is she a friend of yours?"

The student representatives were allowed to meet with Spilman and the Board members. After long hours of meeting with the student representatives, Spilman explained to the crowd. This only increased discontent. Around midnight, the students gathered with other protestors and met throughout the night. And the rally.

Board Chair Spilman was claimed to have said "Deaf people are not ready to function in a hearing world", which Spilman had denied. Regardless of its truth or not, the mentality of this message was not new to deaf people for a long time. Overall, the students perceived Spilman's attitude as "dismissive".

Rally at night. Screenshot from the video.

Day 2: Monday March 7

At dawn, the Gallaudet students took control of the campus. They prevented every entrance with the tire-deflated vehicles. The day was filled with speeches and rallies.

The four demands were formed in the morning: 1) deaf president to be selected and Zinser to be resigned; 2) the chair of the Board of Trustees (Spilman) to be resigned 3) at least 51% of the deaf members on the Board of Trustees 4) no reprisals against any protestors.

When Spilman and the Board members arrived for the meeting at noon with the representatives, the demands were presented to them. At the end of three-hour meeting, Spilman said that the Board rejected the demands and they stood with the selection of Zinser.

Screenshot from the video

As Spilman began to make an announcement in the auditorium, a deaf faculty member Harvey Goodstein walked out onto the stage in front of her and told the audience that the demands hadn't been met. Everyone got up and walked out.

The protesters marched to the U.S. Capitol building which only about a mile away from Gallaudet for speeches and rallies.

By this time, dozens of reporters were on the campus. The story was on the front pages in the local newspapers and on television news.

Day 3: Tuesday March 8

The four leaders of the protest were chosen: Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus. The groups of organizers and liaisons from media and fundraising to interpreter and legal were formed and coordinated.

The day was filled with rallies and speeches. While the entrance gates were reopened, the students boycotted classes and attended rallies and speeches. By this time, the media had reached the national level in newspaper and on national television.

Day 4: Wednesday March 9

The reporters continued to flock to the campus.

The morning began with a meeting between two Congress members who were members of the University's Board of Trustees and a small group of Gallaudet members.

In the meanwhile, Elizabeth Zinser who had agreed to begin her presidential duty early arrived in Washington, D.C., because her presence was believed to help soothe the protest. Zinser had a meeting with I. King Jordan. At another meeting, the student leaders urged Zinser to step down, yet she refused.

At this time, there was an overwhelming support of the staff and faculty to side with the students as well as many politicians and U.S. senators, Deaf community around the world, parents of students, hearing drivers who honked on the street in front of the Gallaudet campus, and uncountable others.

At the National Press Club, Zinser and Spilman were still adamant with their decision. I. King Jordan announced his endorsement of Zinser.

In the afternoon, Zinser and Spilman met with the Congress members who had an earlier meeting with the Gallaudet members. The Congressmen urged Zinser to resign and then publicly announced his support of the protesters.

The Week the World Heard Gallaudet
Screenshot from TV news.

"The students' reaction when the board chairman faced them Monday was outrage."

"If you would like for us to listen to the students, the students will have to be a little quieter." -- Jane Spilman.

"The problem is not that the (deaf) students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world does not listen." -- Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, American civil rights activist, Minister. 1988.

Ted Koppel interviewed Gregory Hlibok (SBG President), Elizabeth Zinser, and Academy Award winner and actress Marlee Matlin on the ABC's Nightline Special Interview at 11:30pm.

TV interviewer Ted Koppel asked Hlibok, "...what you are really demanding here amounts to an unconditional surrender, not only on the part of the newly appointed president but also on the part of the board. Is there any room for compromise in your position at all?"

Hlibok responded, "We regret that we do not want to compromise at all because we have been making many concessions for many, many years, and this time we feel very firm that we will not bend on these issues, and we will stay on these four demands. ... it's time for them to make the concessions."

Koppel asked Zinser, "What we have heard from both of you and the chairman of the Board and other members of the Board indicates that there is little or no room for compromise in terms of your position." Zinser replied that she had support of the Board and two deaf candidates.

Hlibok interjeced, "My remarks now are addressed to Dr. Zinser [...] it's important to address what she said. She said she was not convinced because she got some indication of support, but I think that the reason she is not convinced is because she doesn't have access to the community, and there is no dialogue. I mean there really is no one solution that can be reached unless these demands are met."

Day 5: Thursday March 10

One of the four student leaders Greg Hlibok appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America." The rallies continued on all day. Donations flowed in. The American Postal Workers Union president hand-delivered a check of $5,000.

In the afternoon at Gallaudet's Chapel Hall, I. King Jordan retracted his previous statement, "So yesterday, because I have been a candidate and wanted to be both reasonable and fair, I gave a statement recognizing the legal authority of the Board to name the president of Gallaudet University. In fact, my personal reaction to the Board's decision was, and is, anger at the continuing lack of confidence. The students, joined by the staff and faculty, have focused the world's attention on the larger issue. I must now publicly affirm my support for the point of view held by the Gallaudet community. The four demands are entirely justified."

Day 6: Friday March 11

The students drove the Gallaudet's yellow school buses to the gates and deflated the tires.

In the morning, over 2,500 protesters marched from Gallaudet University to the U.S. Capitol, carrying the Martin Luther King "We still have a dream" banner lent to them by the MLK museum.

Dr. Zinser, "I concluded, therefore, that the best way to restore order and return this university to its business of education, was to pave the way for the Board of Trustees to consider the selection of a president who is hearing impaired. I tendered my resignation last night."

Cartoon: Zinser learns sign
Cartoon by Chris OBrion (hearing) for Potomac News, 1988.

The students wore buttons with "3½" on them. Three and half demands left to go. The spring break had begun but the students chose to stay until all demands were met.

The students marched to the Capitol as scheduled in advanced with permits for speeches and celebration. In the evening, the rally continued.

Day 9: Saturday March 12

It was a day of rest with festival and barbecues.

Day 8: Sunday March 13

Spilman announced, "Today I submitted my resignation from the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of Gallaudet University, and from the Board. I took this step willingly because I believe strongly that it is in the best interest of the university."

I. King Jordan selected as president
Screenshot from what is believed to be Deaf Mosaic.

I. King Jordan had been selected as Gallaudet's president and the first deaf president, "I must give the highest praise to the students of Gallaudet for showing us exactly, even now, how one can seize an idea with such force that it becomes a reality."

Philip Bravin was selected as the first Deaf chair of the Board of Trustees and 51 percent of the members of the Board of Trustees was to be fulfilled.

All the demands had been met. Cheers.

"The students at Gallaudet University deserve our congratulations. They educated the nation about deafness, and won a long overdue victory for all disabled people." -- Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, 1988.


This protest changed the history of Deaf education and has made positive ripple effects from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the accessibility acts.

Posted 2005. Updated 2021.


Gannon, R. Jack (1989). The Week the World Heard Gallaudet.

"The Issues"

ABC's Nightline Special Interview. Posted by Joey Baer, March 3, 2013.

"About Tim Rarus '88."

Suggested readings

"When the Mind Hears" and "Mask of Benevolence" by Dr. Harlan Lane (hearing ally).

"They [the Board of Trustees] want to be benefactor. The whole attitude of benevolence is that 'I am better than you, and I'm helping you.' That says, 'I don't need to learn your views, mine are better. I don't need to hear your priorities, mine are better.'" --Dr. Harlan Lane, Doctor Chair of Deaf Studies, Author: "When the Mind Hears" and "Mask of Benevolence".

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