Gallaudet offers 39 majors for undergraduate students, as well as graduate and doctorate programs, and a growing continuing education program. A small number of admitted students—up to five percent of an entering class—are hearing. Teaching in English and American Sign Language, Gallaudet strives to provide an accessible bilingual educational environment for teaching and learning through direct communication.
While the school is small (fewer than 2,000 students), it offers campus activities that rival other universities. There are more than 30 student organizations, including eight Greek fraternities and sororities. Students can cheer on the Bison athletic teams, which include football, basketball, swimming, and volleyball, or participate in intramural sports.
The school prides itself on making technology and accessibility a priority. Gallaudet uses videophones and video relay services (VRS) extensively, as well as skilled interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing. Tuition is currently a little over $15,000, one of the most affordable rates in the country. This makes attending the school even more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.
The Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI) has helped make the university one of the leading international resources for research, innovation, and outreach related to deaf and hard of hearing people. GRI researchers conduct studies of language and learning processes in American Sign Language and English among deaf people from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds. It has long been known as the preeminent source of demographic and educational data about deaf youth throughout the United States.
Two labs, funded by the National Science Foundation, can be found on campus: The Visual Language and Visual Learning Center and the Brain and Language Lab.
- The Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2) is a collaborative effort with more than fifteen labs nationwide, all interested in the visual learning process. VL2 researchers aim to understand more about how learning through visual processes, visual language, and visually based social experience contributes to the development of language, reading, and literacy in ways that provide cognitive and linguistic advantages to deaf and hard of hearing children.
- The Brain and Language Lab (BL2) researchers study the acquisition and neural processing of ASL, the optimal conditions for bilingual language development, and the effects of early bilingual language exposure on the developing brain and its functions.
Additionally, Gallaudet’s Archives house collections and items important to the deaf community, including genealogy sources and noted paintings and documents. According to Dr. Jane Norman, director and curator of the Gallaudet University Museum, the 150-year-old collection inspires examination of what it means to be part of the deaf community—at the local level, as well as nationally and internationally—by chronicling “our shared lives.”
“Deaf people throughout the world share different stories and no matter what sign language we use, what race or gender we are, or beliefs we practice, we are all connected by being deaf and people of the eye. We have a shared history which is part of the history of the world and we have the responsibility to enlighten the world as to who we are.”
Community and Diversity
The community Gallaudet represents is a small and unique one. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are about nine million deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. Exposure to its culture is an essential aspect of the college experience at Gallaudet. Being in a bilingual environment where students, faculty, and staff all use sign language is a great benefit for many deaf students. As a Gallaudet sophomore, majoring in English, said in a post on CollegeProwler, “I wouldn’t have to feel I am in my own world every time I am around hearing people in the classrooms, as well as school, since they do not [use] sign language.”
In addition, the alumni network, which was voted “very strong” in a CollegeProwler survey, keeps students constantly connected to the deaf and hard of hearing community. This also helps with recruiting and job placement post-graduation.
The community is a highly diverse one, as well. Gallaudet currently has sizable African American (10%) and Hispanic (7%) populations, and students from 52 nations are represented at the school. A 2007–2008 annual survey by Gallaudet Research Institute showed that more than 50 percent of deaf and hard of hearing children aged 0-18 were minorities. As a cornerstone of the deaf community and a potential place of higher education for these students, Gallaudet is continually working to meet the needs of its community’s evolving demographics.
In 2011, Gallaudet appointed Dr. Angela McCaskill the university’s chief diversity officer. McCaskill is deaf, and has a background in deaf and hard of hearing education. She previously worked as a research administrator and director of the diversity initiative for the university’s Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning. She has also worked for the U.S. Department of Education and taught at the high school and collegiate levels. McCaskill is a graduate of Gallaudet too, receiving her doctorate in special education administration, the first black deaf woman to receive a PhD at the university.
“To be selected to lead the university’s diversity program, both as an African American and an alumnus, is an honor indeed. As the first black deaf woman to receive a doctorate from Gallaudet, I believe that it is imperative that our students look at the administration and see people that resemble them,” said McCaskill. “We still have a long way to go but the commitment to move forward is there.”
McCaskill says she is looking to incorporate diversity university-wide and at all levels. She says she hopes to see the graduation rate increase for students of color, and deaf and minority faculty hiring improve.
McCaskill’s connections to Gallaudet are strengthened through family. McCaskill and her two sisters, Carolyn and Sharell (who is not deaf), all attended Gallaudet and now work at the school. Carolyn was the first black Miss Gallaudet in 1976. She is now a professor of deaf studies, specializing in the differences between American Sign Language and Black ASL.
Controversies and Inclusion
McCaskill’s tenure, though, has not been without controversy. She was placed on paid administrative leave in mid-October 2012 after signing a petition circulated by those campaigning against gay marriage rights in Maryland. The petition called for Maryland’s same sex marriage law to be put to a vote. At a press conference, McCaskill later said that she felt bullied and would seek legal action.
Critics questioned her alliance with a group that does not support inclusion of a marginalized group, while her position as chief diversity officer is intended to promote and welcome all kinds of diversity.
While this was the latest controversy at the school, it was not the first. In the past there have been disputes about deaf leadership at the university, particularly the president. Student strikes in 1988 began after another in a series of hearing presidents, Elisabeth Zinser, was hired. She was later replaced by I. King Jordan, the first deaf president. He led the school until 2006.
After Jordan’s retirement, Jane Fernandes was named his successor. This appointment, too, was mired in controversy, as critics said she was “not deaf enough,” according to Jordan. He publicly fought against these allegations, saying they were evidence of “identity politics.” Fernandes’ appointment was later withdrawn by the Board of Trustees.
Issues of inclusion are palpable within the deaf community. In a community that has degrees of deafness and hearing, how are issues of disparity and sameness resolved? This concern has faced most minority groups that are bonded by ethnicity, religion, or any other singular characteristic.
“Deaf and hard of hearing people, and those with other disabilities, are found in every race, ethnicity, religion, and country around the world. And despite the diversity in cultural backgrounds and languages, we are all united by a shared life experience,” said President T. Alan Hurwitz. “Gallaudet attracts students from all over the U.S. and the world because we offer a fully accessible, barrier-free learning environment and a strong community built on mutual respect and appreciation.”
Being inclusive while maintaining the identity of what it means to be deaf is an issue that is still being grappled with by the university and the community-at-large. What Gallaudet remains, though, is a unique place of higher learning—one that acts as a steward for the community’s proud and rich heritage, as well as its beacon for the future.