Gallaudet's new president, future

Can Roberta Cordano transform Gallaudet University, which educates deaf and hard of hearing students?

Gallaudet University has appointed Roberta "Bobbi" Cordano as its next president; she is widely expected to transform the private school, which educates deaf and hard of hearing students, for the 21st century. But the story of Gallaudet's reformation actually begins nearly a decade ago.

In 2006, stakeholders at Gallaudet were taking the first steps in a Gallaudet revolution, reforming a 150-year-old entrenched bureaucracy of paternalism.

At the time, I wrote in an op-ed for The Sun, stating that the university faced a defining moment. The university board, I wrote, "needs to move expeditiously to become more inclusive and transparent, while demanding measurable accountability from the university administration. The campus community needs to return to its task of teaching and learning while working with the board in developing the kind of 'shared governance' system that has been instituted in so many other colleges and universities."

And while progress has been made, the university has struggled to regain its vitality and become a shining international beacon of deafhood, equality and opportunity. To help weather the storm, the board went through two presidents: Robert Davila and Alan Hurwitz who came to Gallaudet as their final stops before retirement. Change came slowly, but surely, under those two leaders.

But now, it is time for new ideas and models to carry Gallaudet through a future that promises tremendous challenges in the face of the resurgence of eugenics and audism in our society.

Deaf people worldwide wanted Gallaudet to appoint a president who would not merely be another caretaker of the university but who would stand boldly and show that deaf people are an essential part of humanity. Gallaudet's 11th president needed to once again be a symbol of the intellect, power and passion of deaf people, who are too often dismissed as a defective variety of the human race.

Faced with a formidable task, the board members recognized that they needed to find an almost superhuman candidate with the experience and expertise to address the university's growing diversity and to bring stakeholders together behind a collective, unified vision. Under Chair Heather Harker, the board took its task seriously, instituting an extensive and inclusive search process that addressed the various concerns of many stakeholders.

Three finalists were announced: Ms. Cordano, an attorney and executive of a health and human service foundation in Minnesota; Pamela Lloyd-Ogoke, a North Carolina vocational rehabilitation official; and Annette Reichman, an administrator at the U.S. Department of Education. Each of those individuals is an accomplished leader in her own right.

The fact that all three finalists were women who brought various "firsts" in different ways for Gallaudet was a strong inkling that the board was embracing transformational change.

Ms. Cordano, who is deaf and the child of deaf parents (both of whom are Gallaudet alumni), is a strong choice. She is a brilliant leader. She stands as a powerful representation of how bilingual deaf people fluent in English and American Sign Language can thrive in society. In addition to being a non-profit executive, Ms. Cordano is a former Minnesota assistant attorney general and a co-founder of an innovative and nationally regarded charter school for deaf and hard of hearing children.

A tremendous challenge lies ahead. When less than half of deaf adults are employed, strong and decisive action is necessary. The status quo is intolerable.

Ms. Cordano is clearly ready to tackle the status quo, however. In accepting her appointment, she acknowledged the challenges ahead and stated that "there is great promise to develop and graduate future leaders who will make significant contributions to our country and the world."

Upon my appointment to lead Gov. Larry Hogan's Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, I was given the mandate to prioritize the economic empowerment of deaf and hard of hearing individuals, recognizing that a strong deaf community benefits the larger economy. This means addressing the underemployment and unemployment and encouraging more business ownership and entrepreneurship among the deaf and hard of hearing.

A strong education system is key to reaching these goals.

Neither Gallaudet nor any government agency can address the education and employment gap alone, however. All eyes may be on Ms. Cordano during this time of great excitement and change, but we must remember that we too have roles in changing the status quo and transforming the world. Anything less is unacceptable.

Kelby Brick (Kelby.Brick@Maryland.gov)is a Gallaudet alumnus, attorney, executive and interpreter; he serves as director of Governor Larry Hogan's Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

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