Gallaudet’s Identity Problem

Gallaudet

Some students at Gallaudet University, a Washington, DC, college for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, wonder whether or not the school is “sufficiently committed to deaf culture.”

According to an article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post:

For the first time in living memory, significant numbers of freshmen at the nation’s premiere university for the deaf and hard of hearing arrive lacking proficiency in American Sign Language and experience with deaf culture.

Rising numbers of Gallaudet students are products of a hearing world. The share of undergraduates who come from mainstream public schools rather than residential schools for the deaf has grown from 33 percent to 44 percent in four years. The number of students with cochlear implants, which stimulate the auditory nerve to create a sense of sound, has doubled to 102 since 2005.

That’s actually something of a problem for the school. The more hearing students, faculty, and staff the school has, the more it risks losing something of its identity.

The problem is that maintaining that identity can come at a price. In 2007 the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits Gallaudet, put the school on probation. The commission found, according to de Vise,

Academic standards [were] virtually nonexistent. The university admitted students who could not graduate and employed professors who could barely sign. The institution was not keeping pace with the changing deaf world. Undergraduate enrollment had slipped from 1,274 in fall 2005 to 1,040 in 2007.

The school set higher standards and the president, Alan Hurwitz, worked to create an essentially bilingual culture. The controversy is that tougher admissions and graduation standards meant recruiting a lot of deaf students who succeed pretty well outside of the deaf school, people who could talk and communicate effectively with those who can hear.

But the whole point of Gallaudet is to be an institution for the deaf, where communication occurs by other means. According to the article, there was a time, after school instituted higher standards, when “students hazed freshmen, ordering them not to speak in any of their classes so that they were forced to sign.” But many students came to the school not really knowing how to sign very well.

Gallaudet is the still the only college in the world in which all programs are designed for the hearing-impaired. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer