Deaf President Now

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A protester displaying their demands

Deaf President Now (DPN) was a student protest in March 1988 at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. The protest began on March 6, 1988, when the Board of Trustees announced its decision to appoint a hearing candidate, Elizabeth Zinser, over the other Deaf[note 1] candidates, Irving King Jordan and Harvey Corson, as its seventh president.[2]

Gallaudet students, backed by a number of alumni, staff, and faculty, shut down the campus. Protesters barricaded gates, burned effigies, and gave interviews to the press demanding four specific concessions from the Board. The protest ended on March 13, 1988, after all four demands were met including the appointment of I. King Jordan, a deaf person, as university president.


Irving King Jordan

Gallaudet University was established in 1864 in Washington, D.C., by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet's youngest child, Edward Miner Gallaudet. Gallaudet University was the world's first university for Deaf and hard of hearing students.[3]

Throughout Gallaudet’s history, the Deaf community had always felt more or less unsatisfied with the Deaf representation within the faculty. Significant push for a Deaf president, however, came when Jerry C. Lee, who had been president since 1984, resigned in 1987. In the months following Lee’s resignation, Gallaudet's Board of Trustees looked at candidates for the next president; during this time, several organizations campaigned for a Deaf president. These organizations wrote letters to the board recommending qualified deaf candidates and reached out to the media to gain support. People such as Vice-President George H. W. Bush and Senators Bob Dole, Bob Graham, Tom Harkin, and Lowell Weicker wrote letter endorsements for the cause. Efforts during this time were unsuccessful in garnering a powerful and unified student backing for a Deaf president.

On February 28, 1988, the Board had narrowed the pool to three candidates: hearing person Elisabeth Zinser, Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Irving King Jordan, Gallaudet's Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who had been deaf at age 21 due to a motorcycle accident; and Harvey Corson, superintendent of the American School for the Deaf, who had been born deaf.

A group called the "Ducks", a radical fringe faction of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), began organizing a rally. On March 1, 1988, the Ducks attracted more than a thousand students to Gallaudet’s football field to rally. The event garnered significantly more student support for the cause. In the following days, several small-scale protests on campus occurred. On March 6, 1988, the board selected Zinser, the sole hearing candidate, over the other two deaf applicants, Corson and Jordan, as the next president. The board, however, made no official announcement of this to the Gallaudet community; the student body found out later in the day by visiting the campus’ Public Relations Office.


Upon learning of the appointment of Zinser, an angry student body marched to the Mayflower hotel where the board members were meeting. The crowd waited outside until board member Jane Spilman came out to address the students. She responded to multiple questions surrounding the selection of Zinser as president, whereupon she allegedly said "deaf people cannot function in a hearing world." The student body then met back on campus to launch a full-scale protest..

The following morning, March 7, 1988, students barricaded the campus gates using heavy-duty bicycle locks and hot-wired buses, moving them in front of the gates and letting the air out of the tires. The locked gates forced people to use the front main entrance whereupon protestors allowed only select persons to enter.

The protesters had four demands:

  1. Zinser's resignation and the selection of a deaf person as president
  2. the immediate resignation of Jane Bassett Spilman, chair of the Board of Trustees
  3. the reconstitution of the Board of Trustees with a 51% majority of deaf members (at the time, it was composed of 17 hearing members and 4 Deaf members)
  4. there would be no reprisals against any students or staff members involved in the protest.

The Board scheduled a noon meeting with a group of students, faculty, and staff to negotiate. The Board, however, did not concede to any of the demands. The supporters of DPN then marched to the Capitol Building.[4] The protest was led for the most part by four students, Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus.

External videos
video icon Ted Koppel speaks with Gregory Hlibok, Elizabeth Zinser and Marlee Matlin on ABC's Nightline on March 9, 1988, Youtube video

The following day, the protest continued. A rally was held on Gallaudet’s football field whereupon effigies of Zinser and Spilman and the crowd continued to grow. A sixteen-member council was formed to bring organization to the protest composed of four students, three faculty, three staff, three alumni, and three members of the deaf community; at the council’s head was student Greg Hlibok.

On Wednesday, March 9, a press conference was held at the National Press Club in which board member Jane Spilman and newly elected Elizabeth Zinser made statements and addressed questions about Zinser’s attitude toward and capability to lead the Deaf community. Irving King Jordan, dean of Gallaudet’s College of Arts and Sciences and one of the three finalists for Gallaudet’s next president, publicly supported the appointment of Zinser. Later that evening, protest leader Greg Hlibok, Zinser, and deaf actress and Gallaudet alumni Marlee Matlin, were interviewed about the protest on ABC News' Nightline program.[5]

On Thursday, March 10, Irving King Jordan came to Gallaudet to address the protesters, retracting his earlier support of Zinser as president, "I only have anger towards the decision of the Board. We need to focus the world's attention on the larger issue. The four demands are justified."[4] Meanwhile, in the University's interpreter/communication center, hearing protesters received phone calls from businesses, friends and anonymous donations of money, food and other supplies to aid the protest. Other help outside the deaf community came from worker unions. Moe Biller, then president of the American Postal Workers Union, shared his support for the protest. In the afternoon, Zinser officially resigned.

The following morning, Friday, March 11, more than 2,500 protesters marched on Capitol Hill to celebrate. Determined to fully see their demands through, students held banners that said, "We still have a dream!"[4]

On Sunday, March 13, 1988, chair of the Board of Trustees, Jane Spilman, officially resigned and was replaced by deaf board member Phil Bravin. Bravin announced that the board had selected King Jordan as the next University president. Bravin also informed that no punitive action was going to be taken against those who participated in the protests. Students, faculty, and staff celebrated in Gallaudet's field house.[6]

Throughout the week, dozens of American Sign Language/English interpreters participated in the protest by lending their linguistic skills. The interpreters challenged traditional standards of practice and participated due to a sense of collective identity with the protesters.[7]


Jordan announced his retirement in September 2005 and was criticized in 2006 when he backed Jane Fernandes' candidacy to become his successor. In October 2006, the four DPN student leaders from 1988 issued a public statement, which was harshly critical of both Jordan and Fernandes.[8]


  1. ^ Capitalized to refer to supporters of the Deaf Community[1]


  1. ^ Jamie Berke (9 February 2010). "Deaf Culture - Big D Small D". Retrieved 27 March 2020.
  2. ^ Gallaudet University. Gallaudet press release Archived 2010-06-09 at the Wayback Machine, Gallaudet University.
  3. ^ "DPN: A history-A Brief History of Gallaudet". June 9, 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-06-09.
  4. ^ a b c Deaf Mosaic: Gallaudet University's Television Program, 1988.
  5. ^ Nightline transcript Archived 2013-11-05 at the Wayback Machine, host: Ted Koppel, guests: Greg Hlibok, Marlee Matlin, and Elisabeth Ann Zinser.
  6. ^ Jankowski, Katherine A. (1997). Deaf Empowerment: Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric. Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 978-1-56368-061-8. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  7. ^ Halley, M. (2019). Interpreting as ideologically-structured action: Collective identity between activist interpreters and protesters. New Voices in Translation Studies, 20, 54–85.
  8. ^ Manifesto (October 16, 2006) by DPN student leaders.


  • Barnett, Sharon N., Christiansen, John B."Deaf President Now!: The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University". Gallaudet University Press, 1995. ISBN 9781563682025.
  • Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A journey into the world of the Deaf. Harper Perennial, 1989. ISBN 0-06-097347-1.
  • Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. Random House, 1993.
  • Gannon, Jack R. "The Week the World Heard Gallaudet". Gallaudet University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-930323-54-8. Excerpts on Google Books
  • Deaf President Now contemporaneous letters and press releases, February–March 1988.[1]
  • Halley, M. (2019). Interpreting as ideologically-structured action: Collective identity between activist interpreters and protesters. New Voices in Translation Studies, 20, 54–85.

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