I. King Jordan, PhD, has lived his life by the slogan he coined during the 1988 "Deaf President Now" movement that made him Gallaudet University's first deaf president: "Deaf people can do anything but hear."
During his 18 years as president of the federally supported school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., Jordan says he's used his training as an experimental psychologist to guide his leadership style and help him make some tough decisions: He gathers the facts, listens to the different stakeholders, then acts.
"If I truly believe I've made the right decision, then I stay with it," says Jordan, 63.
That tenacity garnered him great success over the years, but it most recently undermined his popularity when he continued to stand by the choice of Jane K. Fernandes, PhD, as the next Gallaudet president. In protest, students blockaded the school and protested on Capitol Hill. Students cited a variety of reasons for opposition to Fernandes, with some alleging poor leadership, management by intimidation and other forms of divisive leadership. Others charged that, though deaf and fluent in sign language, Fernandes didn't grow up signing and isn't oriented toward deaf culture.
Jordan and school administrators negotiated with the students for several days without a resolution. The students wanted Fernandes, the school's former provost, to resign--a demand that Jordan described as non-negotiable.
Jordan himself rode a wave of protest into the presidency in 1988 after the Gallaudet Board of Trustees first named a hearing candidate as president.
So loud were the student protests, which closed the school, that the board's initial pick resigned. Jordan, who was born hearing but became deaf from head trauma suffered in a motorcycle accident when he was 21, was named instead.
But as president, he refused to back down from his support of Fernandes, even approving arrests of protesters. Ultimately, however, Fernandes's opponents prevailed, and she lost her status as president-designate.
A controversial figure?
During the standoff, faculty had also overwhelmingly approved resolutions demanding the resignation of Fernandes as president-designate, and expressed a loss of confidence in the board. In a press release following the arrests, Jordan described the experience as the saddest night of his life, but stood by his decision to order the actions necessary to reopen the school.
Jordan lost his final battle, when, on Oct. 29, the Board of Trustees voted to terminate Fernandes's contract as president-designate. The action left Jordan without an immediate successor. As of Monitor press time, the board had organized an advisory committee to recommend candidates for the post of interim president.
Among those opposing Jordan's support of Fernandes was Andy Lange, a 1983 graduate and president of the Gallaudet University Alumni Association, who traveled to Gallaudet from Sioux Falls, S.D., to join in the protests. "[Gallaudet] is considered a Mecca for deaf people; deaf people treasure this institution," says Lange, who also served as president of the National Association of the Deaf from 2003 to 2006.
Part of what they treasure is its message of empowerment for the deaf, which is why they pushed for a deaf president in 1988. Jordan, who had began his Gallaudet career as a psychology professor, was then academic dean and a presidential candidate. He did not take a direct role in organizing or leading the protests, but did express opposition to the board's initial decision.
Once president, Jordan says he faced strong skepticism from some colleagues. People told him point-blank that his deafness would hinder his leadership claiming, for example, that he wouldn't be able to communicate effectively with the congressional leaders who oversee Gallaudet's budget.
"Deaf people are told all their lives, you can't do this--you can't do that," says Jordan, whose last day as president is Dec. 31.
But he proved his doubters wrong with such successes as organizing the school's first-ever campaign to build an endowment from alumni and corporate contributions, which as of July had grown to $171 million, according to school officials.
Glenn B. Anderson, PhD, the former chair of Gallaudet's Board of Trustees, also credits Jordan with attracting talented faculty to the school, spearheading the renovation of several historic buildings on campus, and using private money to improve the school's facilities. New buildings, such as the Student Academic Center and the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, currently under construction, cater to the learning styles of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and emphasize a visual style of learning, such as raised platforms for instructors.
As president, Jordan also gained increases in funding from Congress, which appropriated almost $107 million for the school in fiscal year 2006.
In addition he pushed to establish Gallaudet's clinical psychology doctorate program, which since its 1990 inception has produced 43 clinical psychologists fluent in sign language and skilled at communicating with deaf and hard-of-hearing people, says psychology department chair Virginia Gutman, PhD.
"These psychologists, including a dozen who are themselves deaf or hard of hearing, are providing services to the vastly underserved deaf population all over the country," she says.
Jordan's activism has extended beyond the university gates. Many credit him with helping to motivate Congress to pass laws giving deaf people, and all people with disabilities, better access to education. Jordan lobbied particularly hard for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has opened up job and educational opportunities for people with disabilities, and for the Television Decoder Circuitry Act, which mandates that all new televisions with screens larger than 13 inches be equipped with decoder chips for closed-captioning.
From high school rebel to college president
Jordan's early life didn't mark him for such prominence. He grew up in Glen Riddle, Pa., a rural area southwest of Philadelphia. One of four children, he sang in the choir of the local Episcopal church, ran barefoot from May to October when he wasn't in school, enjoying what he describes as almost idyllic childhood. But he rebelled during high school, never taking a book home, refusing to study and graduating in five years instead of four.
He then joined the Navy, laboring as a junior sailor on the aircraft carrier Enterprise and eventually as an administrative assistant for the ship's legal officer.
Jordan's life as a deaf person began April 23, 1965, when the motorcycle he was riding collided with another vehicle. Days later, he woke up from a coma at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Trying to speak, he couldn't get anyone's attention for what felt like days, as the air needed to form speech sucked in and out of a tracheotomy tube inserted through his throat. As family gathered around his hospital bed, a friend from back home who had a deaf aunt said, "He's deaf!" after watching him try to communicate.
During those weeks in the hospital, doctors told him he had trauma-induced hearing loss and that he'd eventually get his hearing back, a hope he held on to for months.
Medically discharged from the Navy, Jordan entered Gallaudet in the fall of 1966, hoping to major in chemistry or biology. He didn't know sign language, and still remembers how frustrated he felt trying to keep up in class, but he persevered.
As a sophomore, he took a psychology class, and encouraged by professor Sylvia Rosenblatt, PhD, who was deaf, "fell in love" with psychology.
Jordan says he became a "whole person" at Gallaudet. He celebrates the anniversary of his accident as his "deaf birthday" and says his experiences at Gallaudet gave him a new life.
"I came in as a young freshman with no direction and no knowledge of sign language or deaf culture. I was a hearing person who couldn't hear, and then I saw deaf adults who were successful and happy, so I said, 'OK, I can do this,'" Jordan says.
He credits his career to the encouragement he got at Gallaudet, especially psychology professors, who he says practically "grabbed him by the collar and shook him" to make sure he applied to graduate school.
At the University of Tennessee, Jordan earned a doctorate in experimental psychology in four years, writing his dissertation on the efficacy of American Sign Language (ASL), as compared with spoken language. Jordan says his work helped establish that ASL can convey the same amount of meaning as spoken language.
Graduate school was difficult. No provisions were made for his deafness, and Jordan says he woke at 4 a.m. every day to spend hours "reading and reading and reading" in the undergraduate library. At noon, he had lunch with his wife and young children before heading to class sessions in the late afternoon.
More recently in the aftermath of the board's decision against Fernandes, Jordan appealed for a return to civility on campus. "We should not look for a resolution to the struggle of recent months in terms of winners and losers. If we do, Gallaudet and our students will be the losers."
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