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March 25, 2004

Deaf students call for deaf dean at Ohlone

From: Tri-Valley Herald - Pleasanton,CA,USA - Mar 25, 2004

By Sandhya Somashekhar, STAFF WRITER

FREMONT -- About 150 deaf advocates gathered at the Ohlone College amphitheater Wednesday afternoon, demanding that the college hire a deaf dean for its deaf studies program.

Carrying signs that said "Deaf Dean Always" and "Deaf Dean or Bust," the crowd -- made up largely of students -- watched speaker after speaker articulate the effort as a matter of civil rights.

"We're not second-class citizens," Megan Malzkuhn, one of the student leaders, signed to the group. "They can't understand what it's like not to hear. We want someone who can understand our perspective. We want a deaf dean."

The college is seeking to replace Ronald Burdett, who is retiring at the end of the school year. Burdett made history as the first deaf dean hired at a U.S. community college when he was promoted to the position four years ago.

About 150 students are enrolled in the Deaf Center program, which was founded in 1972. Considered one of the largest deaf-centered collegiate programs in the western United States, all of its students and five of its nine faculty members are deaf or hard of hearing.

The program is bolstered by the proximity of the California School for the Deaf, a state-run kindergarten through 12th grade school. One of its two campuses is in Fremont.

College officials haven't ruled out hiring a deaf dean. In fact, more than half of the roughly 30 applicants so far are deaf, college President Douglas Treadway said.

But the college is barred by state and federal law from discriminating based on an applicant's disability, Treadway said.

"I know from experience it's been a strong asset (having a deaf dean)," he said. "The current dean has done a wonderful job."

Students, though, say they're not taking any chances. They said they plan to hold an informational meeting every week during lunch to update the community on the hiring process, and are forming a club called Deaf Voice to advocate for the rights of deaf students.

Deaf people have been marginalized as incapable for too long, said the students, who are modeling their movement after the "Deaf President Now" movement at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. In 1988, when the all-deaf university hired a hearing president, students revolted -- holding protests, boycotting classes and eventually succeeding in persuading the new appointee to resign.

Some activists prominent in that movement spoke passionately in favor of a deaf dean at Ohlone during Wednesday's rally.

There are hundreds of positions for deans in community colleges across the country, said Brigetta Bourne-Firl, one of those activists.

"All we're asking is that one -- only one -- of those positions be given to a deaf person," she said in sign language, eliciting enthusiastic waves from the audience. "If a deaf person is chosen for this department, it will be one of the best decisions this college ever made."

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