When Genie N. Gertz returned to her alma mater, Gallaudet University, this fall to be its new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, she joined seven other alumni on the 13-member president's cabinet.
"I grew up believing that I could do whatever it was that I wanted, that there were no limitations placed on me," she said through an American Sign Language interpreter on the campus of the 149-year-old liberal-arts institution, which serves primarily deaf and hard-of-hearing students. "It's my goal that future generations of deaf students have that same experience."
Ms. Gertz was born in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8.
After attaining a bachelor's degree in communication arts at Gallaudet in 1992, she earned a master's degree in human-resource management and development from New York University, and a Ph.D. in social sciences and comparative education from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Just before joining Gallaudet, Ms. Gertz, who is 43, was dean of the deaf-studies division at Ohlone College, a two-year public institution in California. She had also been a faculty member in the deaf-studies department at California State University at Northridge.
Ms. Gertz's ability to maintain programs and the graduation rate at Ohlone during budget cuts impressed Stephen F. Weiner, Gallaudet's provost. "She found innovative ways to find new resources and build better community relations," he says.
In addition to her academic work, Ms. Gertz has served on the founding board for the Deafhood Foundation, which describes itself as "dedicated to achieving economic and social justice for all deaf people."
Some hearing people do not understand the depth of deaf people's capabilities, which creates "unnecessary barriers" for them, Ms. Gertz says. Gallaudet students are often drawn to such fields as linguistics, counseling, education, and American Sign Language, but Ms. Gertz says more students are turning to nontraditional career paths, like graphic arts and law. Gallaudet emphasizes collaboration across disciplines to prepare students for fluid careers, she says.
"When students graduate, we don't expect them to stay in their careers for 34 years, as previous generations of employees did," she says.
Among other goals, the university is trying to increase enrollment.
Corinna S. Hill, a Gallaudet senior and member of the search committee, wrote in an e-mail that she expects Ms. Gertz to "take a student-centric approach."
"She seems very warm and inviting," wrote Ms. Hill, who is editor in chief of Gallaudet's student newspaper. "Students gravitate towards her."
Ms. Gertz's publications include an essay, "Dysconscious Audism: A Theoretical Proposition," which asserts that hearing society's dominance alters the way in which deaf people perceive themselves. Internalized "audism," the notion that people who cannot hear are inferior, hinders deaf people in developing a deaf identity and prevents them from expressing cultural pride, she writes.
Mr. Weiner says Ms. Gertz's publication history would translate to higher expectations for Gallaudet faculty.
Her appointment, he said in a written statement, will inspire them to "engage in more critical scholarship and research" and "more fully embrace the diversity of this community."