Graduates booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she spoke at Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement. Many turned their backs to protest her appearance.
DeVos’ was part of the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to connect with HBCUs. Many students and alumni had objected to having DeVos as speaker in part because they said that outreach is an empty gesture or because they were offended by a remark she had made about historically black schools. The school revived a petition with over 50,000 signatures protesting the DeVos appearance. However, university president Edison Jackson defended DeVos’s work as a philanthropist and her commitment to education. The speech received national attention at a time of heated debates over academic freedom.
Jeers rained for the entirety of the 20-minute speech, when she was introduced and while she accepted an honorary degree. Representatives from the NAACP, national teachers unions and other organizations protested outside the Ocean Center, where the ceremony was held.
“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” DeVos tried to say above the crowd chatter. “I am here to demonstrate in the most direct way possible that I and the administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.”
At one point, Jackson interrupted DeVos to warn students, “If this behavior continues, we can mail the degrees to you.” At least one person was escorted out of the arena.
Jackson unwisely choose to ignore his students’ and alumni’s wishes and the nearly 60,000 supporting signatures, continuing with the invitation of DeVos. Jackson double down by defending the decision at a news conference before the event.
After an hour delay, as journalists could not leave the building to speak with students or protesters, Jackson answered only three of four questions.
The school volunteered one student to speak to the media, but he was quickly taken away as reporters began asking questions.
“We have always been in the business of making friends, and if you don’t have friends, it’s very difficult to raise money,” Jackson said during a news conference before the ceremony. “Her department controls roughly 80% of Title IV monies, as well as grants. So why wouldn’t we want to make friends?”
Protesters from The Dream Defenders, a Florida youth-organization that works to improve the lives of black communities, stated DeVos will actually make it harder for Bethune-Cookman graduates to pay back student loans after she halted an Obama-era program to help students manage federal student loans.
“Betsy DeVos should not be speaking at an HBCU. Betsy DeVos should not be the speaker at any educational institution,” Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders, said in reference to DeVos’ favoritism for non-traditional public schools.
The larger questions loom…what the hell was DeVos doing there? And how,, exactly, did Jackson expect this to turn out?