Sunday, October 18, 2009

Protests unlikely for deaf university's new leader

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Protests closed the campus three years ago when the nation's premier university for deaf and hard of hearing students selected a new president. It was a marked contrast with Sunday, when the school's selection of a new leader was met with "deaf applause."

Gallaudet University announced Sunday that T. Alan Hurwitz would become the 10th president of the nearly 150-year-old school. Hurwitz is currently the president of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf a college of Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. He'll take over at Gallaudet, which has approximately, 1,900 students, in January. About 90 percent of the school's 1,000 undergraduates are deaf or hard of hearing.

"I enthusiastically accept this appointment," he told faculty, students and alumni during an acceptance speech — using sign language. "I look forward to beginning my work with all of you."

Hurwitz received a standing ovation when his name was announced, and the audience waived their hands over their heads in a show of "deaf applause."

Reaction to the selection was a marked contrast with 2006, when students formed human chains at campus gates, set up a small tent city and at one point burned an effigy of the chosen president. The candidate at the time, Jane K. Fernandes, was criticized for her management style and for not learning sign language until she was an adult. And the school was criticized for a selection process students and faculty said was not inclusive.

Zachary Ennis, the current undergraduate student body president, said the selection process this time was much more open, and students got a chance to talk with and provide feeback on four finalists announced in September. He said the choice was a big topic of discussion on campus because the president of the school is a leader in the deaf community.

"The role of the president is not just to run the university," he said through a sign language interpreter after the announcement. "The whole world looks up to us. It was important to get the right person."

Hurwitz is already well known in the deaf community. He spent the past nearly 40 years at Gallaudet's rival, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and has headed the school since 2003. He is the only finalist who did not earn at least one degree from Gallaudet. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, a master's degree from St. Louis University and his doctorate in education at the University of Rochester.

"I would like for students to view me as student-centered," he said after the announcement. "I'm a strong supporter of shared governance."

While he may have the support of the student body, Hurwitz still faces challenges when he takes office in January. Recruiting and retaining students is becoming more difficult because many deaf children are now mainstreamed at an early age. Hurwitz said the school's biggest challenge is making the school the "first choice" for deaf students even though other options are open to them.

Funding is also an issue. Founded in 1864 by Congress, Gallaudet still gets about 70 percent of its budget from federal money. The budget is about $160 million for 2010, but if Congress cuts funding it could jeopardize the school.

Hurwitz replaces Robert R. Davila, who took over after the turmoil over Fernandes' selection. It wasn't the first time the school has had difficulty choosing a president.

In 1988, students demanded the selection of the school's first deaf president, protests that led to the selection of I. King Jordan. It was Jordan's decision to retire that prompted Fernandes' selection.

The new president's salary was not disclosed, though Davila's base salary was approximately $400,000. The job does come with the keys to the school's "House One," a 20-room Victorian mansion where flashing lights go off when the doorbell rings to alert the family someone is outside. Hurwitz said he planned to invite students to a house warming when he takes over.

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