People are curious about how I became a trustee of Gallaudet University and why I serve. It makes sense for them to wonder, because I have no obvious connection to the institution. I am not deaf nor are any of my family members deaf. So perhaps I should take a moment to explain how I was introduced to the school, about which I care so deeply now, and why I have continued to dedicate myself as a volunteer to its success.
My career has been committed to civil rights, especially bridge building. For many years, I taught at Howard University. I was the first Asian American on the law faculty of what is commonly regarded as the leading historically black college/university. It was humbling to teach there, and I learned as much as I taught. My experiences made me understand issues of race as I could not have from study, no matter how thorough: I realized the privileges of my own identity and the prejudices I harbored despite my ideals. On a day-to-day basis, I was able to make a statement about coalitions simply by appearing in the classroom.
As an educator, I have always had a particular interest in institutions that have distinctive missions. Many schools no longer have any clear purpose, other than the dubious cause of pursuing a higher ranking. Except for their name, logo, and the description of their locale, you could exchange the view book of one with that of a competing institution and nobody would be any the wiser. However good they may be, I do not find those places compelling. Schools that advance visions transform individual lives and inspire societal progress.
I took my current job, as dean of Wayne State University Law School, because it plays a crucial role in the renaissance of Detroit, my hometown. I have taught over several short stints at Deep Springs College, a highly-selective full-scholarship all-male college located on a student-run cattle ranch at the edge of Death Valley, where there is a unique sense of preparing people for a life of service through a model of labor and self-governance. These are places that make a difference.
Likewise, as soon as I had any contact with Gallaudet, I knew it was the type of school to which I felt an innate attraction. During President Clinton’s first term in office, he announced a project entitled "One America," which would address the difficult issues of race, ethnicity, and the changing face of our nation. This effort included "town halls" held by many institutions from coast to coast, including colleges and universities. I was surprised but delighted to be contacted by Lindsay Dunn, a special assistant to President I. King Jordan, who asked me to moderate such a town hall at Gallaudet. Although I said I didn’t know anything about deafness, he was interested in my participation because I was involved with diversity--an issue that has been and remains a priority for Gallaudet.
After that, I had a few opportunities to come to campus to give presentations on related issues. As I understand it, it was my enthusiasm and my occupation as a lawyer that made my future colleagues on the board consider me when United States District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson reached the term limit and stepped down.
Due to my positive interactions with the people at Gallaudet, primarily faculty and students, I eagerly accepted the invitation to join the board. Here I could immerse myself in a community that changed the world through the Deaf President Now movement. I knew that it was not only an honor to participate in the governance of a university; it would teach me about higher education policy as would few other experiences. Indeed, it did--and much more.
An eye-opening experience for me was realizing, as soon as I started coming to meetings, that I was the one with a disability, not the deaf and hard of hearing people around me. For in communications, I needed an interpreter, not the other people in the room.
To ensure I was able to fulfill my responsibilities, I signed up for American Sign Language classes after my first year of board service. My wife joined me. To my embarrassment, I was only a "B" student – she, however, proved to be an "A" student, as she continues to remind me!
We are still working to develop conversational skills with a private tutor, but I know there is much more study involved. I am determined to become good enough to carry on a conversation with my colleagues directly, without any need for help. It is a challenge I have undertaken, because of respect for the Gallaudet community.
After seven years on the board, I have come to appreciate so much this chance I have been given to contribute to a wonderful university that is like no other. As is true of most worthwhile endeavors in life, the work of a trustee has had its challenges. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that I have been enriched immensely, personally and professionally; I have made friends I would never have met otherwise; and I have come to appreciate the leadership skills needed to guide an institution.
Whatever the future holds for me and Gallaudet, I will always feel a bond with it. I look forward to the work that remains to be done.
(Note: Frank Wu is dean of Wayne State University Law School and has been a member of the Board of Trustees since 2000.)
Posted: 18 Dec 2007