Quite an uproar was raised as Betsy DeVos was booed at the Bethune-Cookman University graduation commencement this Wednesday. “Thank you so very much for this great honor and privilege. I am honored to become a Wildcat,” DeVos announced to the audience at Bethune-Cookman University’s graduation commencement. From the beginning of her speech, a number of graduates in the audience stood up and turned around, back to the stage in protest of the controversial Trump appointed Secretary of Education.
A chorus of boos and shouts of “go home” were audible and only grew in intensity for the first couple minutes of DeVos’ speech until she had to be interrupted by University president Dr. Edison Jackson, who had just awarded her an honorary doctorate.
“If this behavior continues your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,” Bethune-Cookman president implored the audience. Jackson’s cry to “Give Beth a chance” fell on deaf ears. “You don’t know her or her story,” was met with even louder jeers.
Misunderstanding, miscommunication, and even an unintentional misspelling contributed somewhat to the spirit of divisiveness present at the graduation. The initial seed of much of the clamor was related in part to concern about Trump’s plans for an initiative that allows for funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Trump’s statement in regards to the constitutionality of funding specifically or historically black colleges sparked an initial furor. In addition, DeVos’ attempts to liken HBCUs, was considered offensive by some. Many HBCUs came into being as a necessity from the Civil War on into the age of Jim Crow segregation. The comparison drawn by Secretary DeVos between HBCUs and her school voucher pet project was attacked as “whitewashing” of HBCU history.
On Tuesday, the day before the ceremony, petitions had been delivered to University heads. A Change.org petition with over 8,000 signatures urged DeVos to be disinvited.
“Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs.”
Jackson’s decision to go ahead with DeVos as keynote speaker could invite a bit more blowback than the ample boos he garnered at graduation. NAACP’s Florida State Conference has already called on Jackson to resign. The petition likened her invitation to speak to an insult to “the first lady of the Civil Rights Struggle” educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Speaking of insults to injury, an intentional misspelling of Bethune’s name in a prepared statement was taken by some as more evidence of the administration’s lack of attention to detail and interest, or at least familiarity with the issues facing HBCUs.
DeVos did her best to maintain composure and stuck to the prepared speech. The luncheon and commencement speech seemed to be in part a way to convince HBCUs and their advocates of the administration’s continued support.
“I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve. Please know this: We support you and we will continue to support you.”
At the same time, she seemed to defend her appearance.
“One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy is the ability to converse with people with whom we disagree. We can focus on differences that divide us, or we can choose to listen and learn from each other’s experiences.”
Echoing DeVos’ message, Jackson clarified his reasons for his choice.
“I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community. If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship…We actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas…. We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social, and racial silos.”
Despite concerning statements, President Trump and Secretary DeVos have attempted multiple times to clarify the administration’s “unwavering support’ for HBCUs. According to Trump, in a speech Sunday night, “The statement that accompanied my signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, sets forth my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution. It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions… My commitment to the above-stated goals remains unchanged.”
In a response, the statement, which included the unfortunate misspelling of Bethune-Cookman University’s founder, attempted to reassure HBCU advocates.
“The signing statement is not intended in any way to suggest that there will be any change with the program or that it is unconstitutional. It is intended merely to indicate that the program will continue to be implemented based on the traditional definition of HBCUs, which is based on mission and history and thus consistent with equal protection principles. The President and Secretary DeVos unambiguously reiterated their complete, unwavering support for HBCUs. So it should be clear that this is in no way a policy change or suggestion that the provision will not be implemented.”
[Featured Image by John Raoux/AP Images]