The Magazine

Identity Politics Gone Wild

The Deaf culture wars at Gallaudet University.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Last September and October it was the 1960s all over again at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. All the elements were present from that bygone era of militant campus radicalism: the student protesters with their linked arms and picket signs, the hunger strike, the sprawling, slovenly tent city where students camped out instead of sleeping in their dorms, the occupation of buildings, the invasion of administrators' offices, the cessation of classes, the shutdown of university business, the campus lockout that included chained gates and a denial of entry to all except those who supported the protesters. Finally, on October 13, there were mass arrests of gone-limp demonstrators--133 in all--that made presumed martyrs out of those who suffered minor injuries in the scuffles. All that was missing from this 2006 version of those heady days of 40 years ago was Mark Rudd and his famous bullhorn. That would have been unnecessary, however, for Gallaudet is a university for the deaf, founded by an act of Congress in 1864, the nation's only liberal-arts college with the specific mission of providing higher education for students who cannot hear or are hard of hearing. Gallaudet, named after the famous 19th-century deaf-educator Thomas Gallaudet, is structured as a private institution, with about 1,800 students (1,200 of whom are full-time undergraduates), but U.S. taxpayers provide almost three-quarters of its annual budget, about $108 million a year.

Although the Gallaudet campus was completely shut down for only three days, classes were effectively canceled for at least two weeks, partly because some protest-supporting Gallaudet professors refused to teach as a way of expressing solidarity with their students, and partly because the protesters themselves both barred non-protesting professors from their classrooms (literally locking them out by blockading the gates of the iron fence that surrounds the campus), and, according to observers, threatened non-protesting students into staying away as well. Reports of the poisonous atmosphere at Gallaudet during the demonstrations were so alarming that in early January a team from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting agency for colleges in the Mid-Atlantic area, visited Gallaudet and issued a report warning of "dire consequences in terms of accreditation" if the events of September and October 2006 were to be repeated.

"[C]losing an institution through protest, preventing or intimidating students from attending class, or precluding the open exchange of ideas brings the institution out of compliance with Middle States' accreditation standards," the January 12 report stated. Gallaudet is already in serious trouble for other reasons. A 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Education rated the university "ineffective," citing declining enrollments, a chronically low graduation rate (signaling that many students who are admitted cannot handle college work and drop out), and the inability of more than 30 percent of Gallaudet graduates to find jobs within a year of graduation. In January the department raised Gallaudet's rating to "adequate," which is an improvement if not exactly a recommendation.

Part of the problem is that academically talented deaf students have many other options besides Gallaudet these days; they can go to Harvard, or to a good state school, many of which offer programs geared specifically to the deaf. Advances in medical technology, chiefly cochlear implants, have enabled the brains of many deaf young people to process sounds more easily, and they thus have an easier time in mainstream education. Another part of the problem, though, is the peculiar campus culture that flourishes at Gallaudet, a culture fostered by radical students and faculty members that has bred those 1960s-style confrontations and that--as both enrollment and application numbers at Gallaudet clearly show--turns off many young people who want only to obtain good educations and prepare for careers.

In a further parallel to the academic upheavals of the 1960s, the upshot of the Gallaudet disruptions last fall was exactly the same as what transpired at several prominent American universities 40 years ago: the ouster of the president. Clark Kerr, president of the University of California system, left office in 1967 after several years of violent upheavals on UC campuses. The noted political scientist Grayson Kirk resigned after 15 years as president of Columbia during the summer of 1968 following a month and a half of picket lines, boycotted classes, occupied buildings, and arrests. Harvard's president Nathan Pusey followed suit by tendering his resignation in a cloud of police tear gas in 1970, after two successive springs devoted to student rioting that had included broken windows, canceled classes and final exams, taking over the dean's office, and a campus lockout, in this case of Harvard Yard.