As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke, the graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs and booed her every word. At one point, university President Edison O. Jackson interrupted DeVos’ commencement address and implored those in attendance to quietly return to their seats, even threatening to mail home their diplomas (that is, end the ceremony) if they did not silence their voices. The booing continued, despite the threat from Jackson, and DeVos eventually finished her remarks.
The day before her speech members of the B-CU community delivered a petition that had been signed by over 50,000 people requesting DeVos’ removal as commencement speaker.
Conservatives will decry this spectacle as another example of liberal intolerance in academia, but DeVos was no martyr on Wednesday. She was an out-of-touch billionaire who picked the wrong forum for the Trump administration’s misguided and calamitously flawed outreach to African Americans. (Presidential aide Omarosa Manigault was also in attendance, and received a cold, boo-filled reception when her name was announced.) Accordingly, DeVos—along with President Jackson—received the disdain that their clueless hubris deserved.
“To honor someone, who not only needs to be educated rather than honored, is not just hypocritical, but it sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is honoring the status of the person as opposed to the actions of the person,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to The Daily Beast. “That is why I think the students and the alums were so upset.”
DeVos’ commencement address, and her reception of an honorary degree from this historic HBCU, did not represent an exchange of ideas or a bridging of cultural divides. Instead it was a perverse honoring of someone whose actions do not warrant these accolades.
DeVos, in a relatively short period of time, has cultivated a fraught relationship with HBCUs. During Black History Month, she absurdly described HBCUs as “pioneers” of school choice instead of the by-product of a yearning for education from African Americans within a segregated American system intent on depriving them of educational opportunities. DeVos’ commitment to vouchers and school choice has also infuriated much of the African-American community.
Segregationists have long proclaimed the necessity of “school choice” so that they could avoid educating minorities, and had the “right” to send their children to segregated schools.
“HBCUs are there to fight the very discrimination that is at the core of the so-called school choice movement,” continued Weingarten.
In 1904, when she was 29 years old, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University, created, with only $1.50, the Daytona Literacy and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. At first it had only five students. For the rest of her life, she remained committed to fostering and expanding educational opportunities for African Americans in the Jim Crow South. That one school, with those five girls, eventually became B-CU. Within HBCUs there is much pride to the historical commitment African Americans have always shown to educating their community. DeVos’, and the Trump administration’s, dangerous and troubling ignorance to this history has made them incredibly hard to honor despite the status and influence they hold.
And for those of you who want to pile on the students, consider that it was just last week that President Donald Trump continued to parrot the segregationist, school choice rhetoric by questioning the constitutionality of funding HBCUs. The students of Bethune-Cookman University need to know if DeVos agrees with the president. They need to know if their university just awarded an honorary degree to someone who questions the constitutionality of their institution. Many HBCUs do not have endowments spanning into the hundreds of millions, so the threat of the removal of public funding could put the institution’s very existence into jeopardy.
DeVos’ speech provided zero clarity. Throughout her remarks, she praised the achievements of Ms. Bethune, but despite having a more influential position, DeVos could not compare her commitment to education to that of B-CU’s founder. She frequently celebrated the university’s motto: “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve,” yet as she did so those in attendance questioned the purpose of her speech. Overall, her remarks sounded distant and were uninspiring.
The circumstances surrounding her selection were controversial, and students played no role in her selection, which is uncommon at B-CU. Many students found out that she would be the commencement speaker via news reports prior to the university officially notifying the graduating class. This chaotic process has resulted in many students believing that her speech was intended to serve ulterior political motives that do not have the students’ or institution’s best interests at heart.
Yes, there is nothing overtly wrong with working with the administration of any president. But covertly working with this presidential administration—that clearly does not know black history and questions the constitutionality of black higher education—and against the wishes of students and alumni does not send the right message. Omarosa’s attendance, and the praise bestowed upon her by President Jackson, only reenforced their skepticism and frustrations.
“You don’t send your graduating class out into the world like this,” said Tyler Durrant, a 2017 graduating senior at Bethune-Cookman University, to The Daily Beast. “Commencement is a monologue and not a dialogue, and that is one of the most important things we’re trying to bring to light here. After she speaks, we won’t speak.”
The outrage directed at DeVos was not a manifestation of our partisan divide. This was not liberals vs. conservatives, or even black vs. white. The fury over her commencement address and bestowing upon her an honorary degree stemmed from the university’s decision to refuse to create a platform where students, faculty, and alumni could have a respectful back and forth with DeVos, share ideas and experiences, and hopefully find some common ground.
Instead, commencement—a day intended to honor members of the B-CU community—became a platform for honoring someone who has insulted the African-American community and HBCUs. To many within the B-CU community, honoring DeVos was a slap in the face and antithetical to the ideals of the university.
“I’m upset about Secretary DeVos speaking because since she’s been the secretary of education she has insulted HBCUs. She has not shown that she understands the roles and contributions that HBCUs play in American society,” said Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 alumni of Bethune-Cookman University, to The Daily Beast. “The statements that she has said don’t sit well with alumni, students, and supporters of HBCUs.”
The black community, HBCUs, and Bethune-Cookman University seek a respectful dialogue where all sides are provided an opportunity express their views. They do not want to be educated by people who clearly do not understand their history. This is what DeVos’ speech represented, and accordingly, the B-CU community ensured that their voice was heard.