Roberta Cordano Makes History and an Impact as University President

Written by
Lois Elfman

Jun 10, 2024

Jun 10, 2024 • by Lois Elfman

While an increasing number of colleges and universities around the United States have female presidents, there is no one like Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano and there is no other institution like Gallaudet University, in DC, the only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. Founded in 1864, Cordano is Gallaudet’s first deaf woman and first openly LGBTQ person to be officially installed as president.

“Every single one of our executives sign and are deaf or are hearing and use sign language—so we have the largest group of signing executives who are leading an institution,” says Cordano, who was inaugurated as Gallaudet’s 11th president in 2016. “To be a part of that every single day inspires me.”

Cordano’s accomplishments as a leader are many. In 2020, Gallaudet established the Center for Black Deaf Studies. That year also saw the launch of the Center for Democracy in Deaf America. An advocate for more widespread teaching of American Sign Language (ASL), she is working to transform Gallaudet to meet the needs of the 21st century and to ensure that deaf people have greater recognition for their impact on global society.


“If you look across the history of our graduates, every single generation has been prepared to deal with the seismic changes that they face in our society,” says Cordano. “What is not constant is the experience we have to address in the 21st century, and that is around only 2% of deaf and hard of hearing children and people around the world have access to learning bilingually. When I say bilingually, I mean through a sign language and a language in its printed form.

“As technology and the world continues to ever evolve and change, the importance and the recognition of sign language and language equity become even more important,” she continues. “My commitment is to ensure that Gallaudet is here to be a part of that global conversation…and to be a resource in order to make the world a more welcoming, inclusive place and to make it more accessible for all people, especially deaf, hard of hearing and deaf/blind people.”

Cordano, who was among the first 10 deaf women in the United States to earn a Juris Doctor degree, became an assistant attorney general for Minnesota and assistant dean at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She also cofounded two charter schools for deaf and hard of hearing children in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. She came to Gallaudet with a deep appreciation of the university, as members of her family, including her parents, have been graduates.

“That experience of building the two schools and understanding educational finance, understanding bilingual teaching and learning…taught me a great deal,” she says. “Also, my overall career experience, being as varied as it was in the field of law and higher education, in the field of healthcare, nonprofit and community-based organizations, all of those experiences gave me so many skills that I needed to allow me to be effective as president and as a leader.”

There have been multiple key partnerships built during Cordano’s presidency; among them are Apple, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the LEGO Foundation.

Building Community Through Sports

Earlier this year, the university played host to the ECAC Division III Basketball Championship, and visiting athletes came away inspired by the fan support. Gallaudet has a vibrant Division III athletic department with multiple sports, including the women’s volleyball team that won the United East tournament in 2023.

“Other presidents will share with me that when their players talk about the highlights of their season, so often many of them reference playing Gallaudet and their experience being on our campus…whatever the sport may be,” Cordano says. “Our students clearly make an impact in connecting with people—other players, other teams—and engaging with them.”

There is always a focus on student-athlete wellbeing, as more than 30% of Gallaudet students participate in sports.

“It’s the only place in the world where you can play with peers who are deaf and use your language, American Sign Language, and with that they don’t have to compensate for the inability to hear,” she says. “Here communication is barrier free. With that, the connection and the teamwork and the commitment to one another is incredibly high. They bring that spirit and pure joy of playing a sport.”

Sports are also a place for people who use ASL to come together and have immediate community. Gallaudet is a hub for the deaf and signing community in the DMV region. There is a nine-hole disc golf course, which has proven to be very popular, and an esports program. “We continue to build different ways through sports that allow us to connect with the world around us,” Cordano says.


Cordano loves engaging with students and marvels at how they thrive in this environment with faculty who teach bilingually.

Among Gallaudet’s alumni are scientists, CEOs, doctors, lawyers and NASA engineers. The university and its Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center were named Apple Distinguished Schools for transforming education for deaf students through technological innovation. Thanks to a partnership with AT&T, the football players will have an innovative 5G helmet. There is also the Center for Deaf Health Equity.

The shift to online at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was relatively seamless for Gallaudet students. Cordano notes that the deaf community has been doing some version of texting for more than 60 years and has been using video communication for more than 20 years.

“We were able to seamlessly switch to online learning because our community already was accustomed to it and used this kind of technology,” Cordano says. “The challenge was more about all of our work, habits and routines. Pre-COVID we couldn’t even imagine a remote workforce. COVID changed that overnight. We all now understand what we actually can do through the use of technology.”

In the summer of 2020, the university invested approximately $750,000 so that Gallaudet faculty could complete a four-part program. It was composed of bilingual teaching and learning, online certification, trauma and mental health informed teaching practices and how to use the academic platform effectively.

Gallaudet will continue to be a center of innovative ideas. At present, work is going on with animation, television and creating stories through the use of signing avatars and other innovative technologies. The university received a federal grant to do an analysis around the ethics of artificial intelligence as it relates to minority communities such as the deaf. Cordano is intent on changing the lack of diverse representation in situations where innovation is being discussed.

“[We show] what happens when you engage deaf people in idea generation,” says Cordano. “We are one of the leading places experimenting with motion capture and the use of video and digital technologies. We have been a center of excellence when it comes to testing and evaluating the accessibility of programs, software and hardware.

“We established one of the first cognitive educational neuroscience centers in higher education,” she adds. “One of the things that I’m trying to do as president is to bring more attention to what happens on our campus when it comes to leadership and ideas from our faculty, students and staff.”