Elisabeth A. Zinser reflects on her 4 days in office
as the campus marks a decade under the leadership of I. King Jordan
By JOYE MERCER
Ten years ago, when locked gates and a wall of students stood between
Elisabeth A. Zinser and the campus of Gallaudet University, she didn't
realize what a "privilege" it was to be the university's
president-elect, she says.
She does now. At the time, however, she knew only that she was facing
the biggest challenge of her career. Students and others were angry
that the board had named yet another hearing president to the nation's
only university for the deaf -- and, as the board's choice, she took
the brunt of their anger.
She quickly went from elation over her appointment to resignation. Ms.
Zinser was named president by the Board of Trustees on March 6, 1988.
On March 10, she stepped down.
By then, she had seen that the protest was gaining steam and national
attention. She also knew that her only visible support came from the
14 members of the board -- and that even they weren't unanimous.
Her decision to step aside paved the way for the presidency of I. King
Jordan, Gallaudet's current president. He is the first deaf person to
serve in that role at any American university.
After those few days spent in Washington, Ms. Zinser returned to the
University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was
vice-chancellor for academic affairs. Still, what happened at
Gallaudet has remained a huge part of her life. The movement touched
off by her appointment, "Deaf President Now," or DPN, as it's known,
changed not only Gallaudet, but also Ms. Zinser, in ways both large
"Gallaudet means a lot to me, more personally than professionally. It
looms large in my life -- in my own personal discoveries, the deeper
awareness that I gained for what people who have been oppressed feel,"
she said in a recent interview.
For all of the angst the experience brought her, it didn't seem to
harm her career. When she returned to Gallaudet last week to help
observe the 10th anniversary of DPN, it was as chancellor of the
University of Kentucky.
"Early on, it all clicked for me. I thought, 'Hey, this is not a
situation where I'm the president of a university as much as this is
the Selma of the deaf community,'" she said. "I needed to figure out a
genuinely human, hopefully wise perspective on how I could play a
positive role in all of this, so that the university could get back to
business as quickly as possible."
As it turned out, her response got Gallaudet's trustees out of a
painful, embarrassing situation, and made for a smooth transition to
Mr. Jordan's presidency. The two have stayed in touch over the years,
and Mr. Jordan credits her for not taking DPN's position personally.
"During the protests, there was no position that endorsed any person
as president," he said in his office at Gallaudet. "It wasn't me
versus her. The movement was about a concept, not a person."
The movement was also about surprise; it caught nearly everybody off
guard. Mr. Jordan, who lost his hearing in a motorcycle accident in
1965, at the age of 21, had been one of three finalists for the
Gallaudet presidency. The trustees had encouraged deaf and
hearing-impaired educators to apply, and for months had sent signals
that this might be the time that they would choose such a president,
Mr. Jordan said. As dean of the university's School of Arts and
Sciences, he was confident, knowing that the other two finalists were
"a woman who didn't know anything about deafness," and Harvey J.
Corson, a Gallaudet trustee and superintendent of the Louisiana School
for the Deaf, "a man with no higher-education experience."
When the board made its choice, the students reacted quickly. They
shut down classes, blocked most administrators from coming onto the
campus, and marched to the U.S. Capitol. (Gallaudet receives most of
its support from the federal government, and Congressional
subcommittees oversee those appropriations.) The Faculty Senate voted
136 to 11 to support the students, who were demanding not only a deaf
president, but also a deaf majority on the board and the replacement
of its chairwoman.
Initially, Mr. Jordan felt that he had to back the board. "When you
win, you try to be humble and not gloat. When you lose, you have to
congratulate the winner," he said. "I was a university administrator,
and the board is in power to select the president, and they did that.
I was doing what deans do."
Meanwhile, Ms. Zinser had been watching from afar, in Greensboro. The
president of Gallaudet, Jerry C. Lee, had resigned almost a year
earlier for a job in private industry. A four-member administrative
team had been serving in his place. But two team members were
"participating in the revolution," she said. The other two were
hearing people who, during the protest, could not get on the campus.
By March 9, Ms. Zinser was in Washington, trying to help resolve the
crisis. Students, tipped off that she was on the way, were on the
lookout. At one point, suspecting that she might be hustled secretly
onto the campus, they were checking the trunks of incoming cars. There
was even a rumor that she would be flown in by helicopter, landing on
Gallaudet's football field. Eventually she met with four student
leaders, but she had to do so at a nearby hotel.
At a press conference held by the Board of Trustees the same day, Mr.
Jordan read a statement supporting Ms. Zinser's presidency. But by the
next day, he had changed his mind. He decided to "kiss off the
deanship" and support the students' position that it was time for a
deaf president at Gallaudet. "At that point, I knew I had given up any
chance to be president. I knew that the board would never appoint me,"
Ms. Zinser, at the same time, was reaching her own conclusions about
who the president should be -- and should not be. She was also
becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of the students.
"On campus, people were getting tired and edgy. Outside influences
were escalating," she wrote in the November 1991 issue of Deaf Life, a
magazine. "I had no interest in forcing control. We had found no
reasonable means to establish contact and communications on campus. It
was truly a civil-rights movement by and for the Deaf."
She continued: "So, I resigned."
Ms. Zinser returned to Greensboro on Saturday, March 12, and spent all
of the next day chronicling her experience. She was in her office on
Monday, at which point she started hearing "from every search firm in
Creation," seeking to add her to the short list of candidates for
other presidencies. Her visibility was high after appearances on Good
Morning America and Nightline, among other television news shows. But
she sensed that a lot of the interest in her was superficial, so she
didn't respond to any of those offers.
Meanwhile, back at Gallaudet, after the trustees had named Mr. Jordan
president, and the board's chairwoman, Jane Bassett Spilman, had
stepped down, Mr. Jordan was concerned about what kind of relationship
he and the board would have.
"I struggled with the notion of satisfying a board that didn't want
hire me in the first place," he said.
Phil Bravin, a trustee who was chairman of the search committee that
forwarded the names of the three candidates to the full board, was
never worried that Mr. Jordan wouldn't have the board's support on the
job. After a few months, Mr. Bravin said, the board and the new
president reopened "the wounds" of DPN during a trip to Warrenton,
Va., that the board pointedly called an "advance" instead of a
retreat. There they "buried the matter and moved on to greater
Ms. Zinser moved on, too. She left Greensboro in 1989 to become the
president of the University of Idaho. She was there for six years,
during which time she met and married Don Mackin, a former Idaho state
legislator who still has a real-estate business in Moscow, Idaho. In
1995, she was named chancellor at Kentucky.
For a time, she and others were concerned that protest had prevailed
at Gallaudet at the expense of academic values, and that "the rule of
law" had broken down. But Mr. Jordan said DPN should be viewed as a
unique social movement, not as a reign of anarchy -- an assessment
with which Ms. Zinser agrees. "It was something that went to the heart
of everyone who was deaf," he said. "There was this expectation. If
not at Gallaudet, then where?"
For Mr. Jordan, the expectations continue to be great, both within and
outside of the deaf community. Under his leadership, the value of
Gallaudet's endowment has increased from $11-million to more than
$84-million. The campus has undergone extensive renovation, including
additions at the main classroom building. New graduate studies have
been started, such as a Ph.D. program in audiology. Gallaudet is now
in the early stages of a $25-million capital campaign -- its first
Ms. Zinser and Mr. Jordan experienced Gallaudet differently, but they
learned strikingly similar lessons. Mr. Jordan speaks of weighing the
facts but listening closely to his "gut." Ms. Zinser talks about not
second-guessing her instincts.
But what if she could repeat March 1988? "I've had fantasies of
getting through those gates, talking with all the students," she said.
"Had I found a way to actually sit down and talk to them ..." Her
voice trails off.
"In fairly short order, I would have concluded the same thing."
Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education March 20, 1998