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May 24, 2003

Deaf college's chief will retire

From: Rochester Democrat Chronicle, NY - May 24, 2003

Robert Davila, 70, became NTID's first deaf leader in 1996

By Greg Livadas
Democrat and Chronicle

(May 24, 2003) — When Robert Davila shakes the hands of 332 students graduating from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf today, it will mark the last time he will be able to share his wisdom and advice as the college CEO.

Davila, 70, who made history when he became NTID's first deaf leader in 1996, retires after his replacement is found.

"At the end of this month, I will be completing 50 years of professional service," he said. "I figure that's two careers rolled into one and think it's time to stop while my wife (Donna) and I continue to enjoy good health and still have energy and enthusiasm to pursue our many and varied interests."

Among his plans: moving from Pittsford to Maryland, to be closer to their two sons and three grandchildren. Davila also will be closer to Washington, where he will be able to devote more time to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the president and Congress on disability policy. Davila was nominated to the council by President Bush.

His move away might not be for at least another year, however.

"Rochester is a great city. This is a great place to live. But we have to make a choice to be closer to our grandchildren," he said.

Humble roots

Born to Mexican migrant workers in California, Davila became deaf when he was 8 years old after contracting spinal meningitis. He was sent to a school for the deaf to learn American Sign Language, as well as English.

In 1953, he graduated from Gallaudet College in Washington, received a master's degree in special education from Hunter College in New York in 1963 and his Ph.D. in educational technology from Syracuse University in 1972.

He returned to Gallaudet in 1972, this time to teach, and eventually became a vice president of the college. In 1989, he left Gallaudet to serve as the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services in the U.S. Department of Education for four years under former President George H.W. Bush.

He became headmaster of the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, Westchester County, in 1993 and joined NTID -- a college of Rochester Institute of Technology -- as vice president in 1996.

Part of his duties include asking for funding on Capitol Hill. This year, $51 million of NTID's annual $60 million budget comes from Congress, which established the college to fill an educational void for specialty education for the deaf. The first class was in 1969.

Under Davila's watch, NTID's enrollment has risen from about 1,000 to 1,250 students, and NTID established a bachelor's degree program for sign language interpreters, developed student and cultural exchanges with colleges around the world and increased grants from $1.8 million to $24 million. NTID's endowment has nearly doubled to more than $19 million.

Admission standards in English, science and math have been raised, and NTID has developed a new curriculum, Davila said.

"It's been an exciting but busy time," he said.

Davila also has courted potential donors to NTID so successfully that a stark outdoor smoking lounge was transformed into the snazzy Dyer Arts Center, featuring works by deaf artists from around the globe.

A deaf couple who had no ties to NTID, Joseph and Helen Dyer of Delray Beach, Fla., agreed to donate $2.5 million for the project.

Even this week, Davila has been working to close the deal on a $3.5 million student development center.

While Davila has rubbed elbows with heads of state and influential people in a position to write a check for millions to the college, he still enjoys talking with students. He's been known to invite them into his office for "fatherly" chats if he feels they need some focus on their schoolwork, habits or future.

And he is frequently seen in the cafeteria. On Wednesday, Davila lunched on a salad while talking with Christopher Samp, 20, of Troy, Mich., who was recently elected as 2003-04 president of the NTID Student Congress.

"I ran for student president and lost by two votes," said Davila, who both spoke and used sign language. "Then I ran for president of my fraternity and lost by two votes. That's when I decided politics was not in my future."

Earlier that day, Nirmal and Connie Manerikar of Plainsboro, N.J., dropped by Davila's office to say hello. They were in town to take their son, Rahul, 19, home for the summer.

"He's a very good role model here," Manerikar said of Davila. "He's the best."

Davila meets with NTID Dean T. Alan Hurwitz at least once a week. Last week, they discussed NTID's marketing and development plans and the illness of a faculty member.

"Give me the information on the hospital and I will follow up," Davila told Hurwitz.

Hurwitz, also a deaf finalist for Davila's position in 1996, calls Davila "truly student-centered."

"He has been a powerful voice for thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing students who attend or have graduated from NTID," Hurwitz said. NTID is more known around the world, and Davila lobbied to make RIT "more accepting to both deaf and hard-of-hearing students and those with other disabilities."

RIT President Albert Simone said Davila has "provided remarkable leadership at NTID." He said Davila was responsible for expanding NTID's reach globally, by sharing its technology and teaching standards with colleges in Japan, China, the Philippines, Russia and Thailand with support from a $5 million grant.

While visiting the Philippines to establish a cooperative educational system, Davila met Clarice Bondoc, a young deaf woman, and her parents, who showed him around their country.

"He is a very congenial person, and I can see that he really is a champion for deaf causes," said Bondoc, 26, an interior design major at RIT who even played golf with Davila. "I would like someday to be as successful as he is -- a person who, in spite of his handicap, is able to rise up and make a difference in this world."

A replacement

Since the 1988 "Deaf President Now" movement at Gallaudet University -- where students successfully protested the appointment of a hearing president with no sign language skills -- special attention has been given to who leads the country's largest schools for the deaf -- Gallaudet and NTID.

"The agreement I have with the faculty and staff was that we would search worldwide for the best qualified person to lead NTID, deaf or hearing," Simone said.

He said he used those guidelines in 1996 and plans to use them this time.

A 15-member search committee began advertising for the position in April. Applicants are expected to be fluent in sign language.

Finalists will be invited to meet faculty and students in September -- when classes resume -- before the new vice president of RIT for NTID is named.

Davila has agreed to stay until a replacement is found and will help in the transition for as long as he is needed.

"I have not been in a hurry to pack because I don't want to be perceived as a lame duck," Davila said.

But when he does leave, he looks forward to a six-month sabbatical, where he intends to write, consult and do some public speaking.

An endowed scholarship has been formed in his and his wife's name by the National Advisory Board, an RIT-appointed group of about 16 people who can offer advice on the plans, programming and operations of NTID.

"I want to be remembered as a capable administrator and committed educator who brought the lessons of my life to my work with students who are facing experiences and challenges similar to the ones I faced when I was their age," Davila said.

Story Sidebar:

''Bob Davila is one of a kind. He's a remarkable American. His story is one that should go down in the annals of American history. He in many ways illustrates the American dream to its fullest. He was born to a family of migrant farmers who were from Mexico and picked fruit in California. ... Now he's managed a $60 million-plus budget through very tough times.''
- Albert Simone, president, RIT

''We worked together and I saw him regularly when we were both with the government. I was very impressed with him. He's known for getting things done and focusing on what needs to get done.''
- David T. Kearns, retired chairman of Xerox Corp. who worked with Davila in the U.S. Department of Education prior to 1992.

''Bob Davila's extraordinary contributions to the field of deaf education are legendary. I wish him much happiness in his well-deserved retirement, although knowing Bob as I do, there is little doubt in my mind that we will continue to see him working hard in support of the educational needs of our nation's deaf and hard-of-hearing students.''
- I. King Jordan, president, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.

''It has been both a privilege and an honor to have been closely associated with Bob over the past five years since I became the dean of NTID, although we have known each other in many different capacities over the past 25 years. It has meant a great deal to me, both as a professional person in the field and as someone who takes his responsibility for the education of deaf and hard of hearing students very seriously, to have access to Bob's wisdom, counsel and skill. His friendship has meant a great deal to me and I have learned much from our association.''
- T. Alan Hurwitz, NTID dean.

''I remember Bob Davila from his student days at Gallaudet College. A handsome Latino lad with a black shock of wavy hair, sort of a dashing caballero - a young look-alike to the 1950s popular TV star, Desi Arnaz. Smart as a whip and a fast-talking pitchman who could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, he loved to shoot the breeze in the college snack bar, the hallways and classroom and hold forth on timely topics - from the Korean War and McCarthyism, to the splendors of his native California and education of the deaf. An 'A' student in my freshman and sophomore courses in English composition and literature ... he was destined to become a leader of the people. And leader he became - in the world of education. He has a whole catalog of firsts in administrative roles that are enough to put him into any International Deaf Hall of Fame.''
- Robert F. Panara of Henrietta, NTID's first deaf professor and Davila's English teacher at Gallaudet.

''He's always thinking ahead and deciding where the school is going next. He's a very remarkable man.''
- Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, who helped NTID secure millions from Congress each year.

''Dr. Davila has tirelessly worked to make NTID a better educational place for young deaf and hard-of-hearing students. He is a true natural businessman and lobbyist. In my experience working with him, he showed that the best way to build a solid institution is by building better relationships with Congress and top donors. ... He opened many opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students into a real world through NTID and his great work. Surely, I will miss working with him. He is already a legend for making our institution excellent.''
- Chamroeun Dee, president, NTID Student Congress, 2002-03.

Copyright 2003 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.