Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Incoming Gallaudet President Hurwitz keeping many roots in Rochester

Incoming Gallaudet President Hurwitz keeping many roots in Rochester

Alan Hurwitz heads for Washington, D.C., next month to become president of Gallaudet University — the world's leading liberal arts institution for the deaf.

But he realizes that much of his future life will remain anchored in Rochester.

He forged his career at Gallaudet's traditional rival: the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, or NTID, one of eight colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology. Joining as a science professor in 1970, he became its first deaf dean in 1998 and president in 2008.

After 39 years, he's not willing to pull up roots. He and his wife, Vicki, will keep their Pittsford home when they move into House One — the elegant president's mansion on Gallaudet's campus.

"Rochester is far and away the most deaf-friendly town I've ever been to," said Hurwitz, speaking American Sign Language through interpreter Doney Oatman. "We intend to retire here.

"Our son, Bernard, and his family live nearby and we have many friends in the area. This will be our getaway from Gallaudet."

Two ground-breaking projects also will keep him commuting from Washington.

He plans to begin a partnership between NTID and Gallaudet to train health care workers.


"There's a critical shortage of health care professionals who can communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing patients," he said. "I want to start this as soon as possible."

Students would begin their studies at Gallaudet, and go to NTID for technical courses. Hurwitz hopes to tap the expertise of two Rochester institutions.

Rochester General Hospital would provide internships, and UR's National Center on Deaf Health Research could share its expertise on promoting health care for deaf populations. Preliminary talks with them should begin early next year, and a national task force will be formed to shape the program, Hurwitz said.

He also has launched a new service at NTID to aid veterans who lost hearing in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Many troops do not use hearing protection while out on missions," RIT said in a statement, citing reports from military doctors. "They feel that it affects their ability to do their job."

An estimated 70,000 soldiers suffered hearing losses in combat, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.

"Serving them is our responsibility, by virtue of our expertise in hearing loss," Hurwitz said.

Next year, NTID will help such veterans with communications skills and psychological support. With the help of interpreters and note-takers, some may enter RIT degree programs. RIT is a Yellow Ribbon College offering low-cost tuition to recent veterans.

Hurwitz's dual residency in Rochester and Washington might seem like having the best of both worlds. In fact, Gallaudet's offer sent his life into turmoil this past summer. He hadn't applied for the presidency, intending to finish his career at NTID. But Gallaudet wouldn't take no for an answer.

"By July, I was steamrolling along with three other candidates," he said. "My interviews went well. But right up to Gallaudet's decision (on Oct. 18), Vicki and I weren't sure what we'd do.

"Even now, we get up in the morning and look at each other: Is this really happening? It's a wild transition, everything's moving so quickly!"

At times, he becomes acutely aware of the new public spotlight aimed at him.

"Gallaudet has a lot of history, a lot of pride," he said. "I'm trying to hit the ground running. ... I view this as a call to national service, because Gallaudet needs new leadership."

He interrupted his move early this month to fly to Moscow. He and fellow NTID leader James J. DeCaro met with the leaders of Russia's largest deaf organizations. (DeCaro is NTID's interim president while it conducts a national search for its next leader.)

"It is indeed December in Moscow!" DeCaro wrote, shivering by e-mail. "We have been discussing ways that NTID and Gallaudet can work collaboratively with the organizations, to improve the circumstances of deaf people in Russian postsecondary education."

Just before his trip to Russia, Hurwitz decided to take a rare breather at home.

Dressed in blue jeans and loafers, he welcomed a few friends with easy cordiality. But even in repose, Hurwitz is notably intense. He signs pensively but with great gusto. Each emphatic gesture advances a point of logic, like a drillmaster marshaling his troops.

This sense of methodical drive has propelled Hurwitz's entire career.

Deaf since birth, he was raised by deaf parents in Sioux City, Iowa. His mother made sure that he read plenty of stories about successful deaf people — useful role models when he became the only deaf student at a large public high school.

"It was often a lonely experience," he said of that time. "But I was good at football, basketball and baseball, and made some friends that way."

Yet his firmly ingrained habit of self-reliance and his expert lip-reading soon came to his aid. He excelled as an electrical engineering major at Washington University, St. Louis. That led to five years as an engineer and programmer in that city's McDonnell Douglas aerospace company.

He first began using sign-language interpreters at the University of Rochester, where he earned a doctorate in education. His newfound teaching skills and science background were fully exploited at NTID, which saw major changes during his tenure.

In 1970, 85 percent of NTID's 339 students came from residential schools for the deaf. Today, 65 percent of its 1,474 students attended mainstreamed public schools.

They use a wide variety of communication modes, including American Sign Language, lip reading and real-time captioning. Teachers at NTID and Gallaudet are still stretching to meet their students' classroom needs.

With such a diverse population, Hurwitz saw the need for a central gathering place. In 2005, he opened the $4.5 million CSD Student Development Center housing the student government, multicultural clubs and a communication center.

He has made a point of experiencing student life first-hand, sometimes living in dormitories for several days to inspect conditions. One of his roommates last summer was Shonathan Lawrence, a student from Columbus, Ga.

"He was very friendly and told us some things about his personal life," said Lawrence, 20. "I've shared much of his wisdom and learned a lot from him."

Outside of NTID, the Hurwitzes both have been active in Rochester organizations serving deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. Vicki co-founded Deaf Women of Rochester, while Alan served two decades on the board of Rochester School for the Deaf.

"I'll miss having Alan and Vicki close by," RSD Superintendent Harold Mowl said in an e-mail. "They're genuine people who enjoy life immensely and care deeply about people."

The local deaf community will throw the Hurwitzes a farewell party at RSD today.

At Gallaudet, the Hurwitzes will find a relatively tranquil campus. But that school has witnessed student turmoil that made worldwide headlines over the last two decades.

In 1988, students staged successful protests to install Gallaudet's first deaf president: I. King Jordan. The unrest revived in 2006, when provost Jane K. Fernandes was named his successor.

Deaf from birth, she didn't learn to sign until age 23. Students who invested their cultural identity in American Sign Language judged her "not deaf enough" and occupied the campus. More than 100 were arrested before Robert Davila, NTID's first deaf CEO, was appointed president.

Hurwitz's appointment was greeted enthusiastically this fall, and his wife expects a smooth transition as Gallaudet's first lady.

She brings strong credentials to her new role. She was a student development coordinator at NTID and directed RSD's outreach center. She also moonlights as her husband's main cheerleader.

"We plan to have dinner and lunch parties at House One," she said. "I want students to come over and feel comfortable to talk with me. This won't be an ivory tower."

But next May, Alan will venture from House One to the ultimate tower of power — the White House.

"Barack Obama and I will be signing Gallaudet diplomas," he said, beaming at the thought of presidential friendship flowing along with the ink. "Well, I'm signing. Maybe he'll use a rubber stamp."