Bethune-Cookman University graduates turned their backs, booed and walked out during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ 22- minute commencement speech on Wednesday. Graduates participating in the protests were intent making it known they did not want Devos, as a representative of the Trump administration, to speak on their special day.
The university’s president, Edison O. Jackson, stopped the ceremony for approximately one minute into Ms. DeVos’s address to tell the crowd of students, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.”
Students and alumni protested DeVos’ scheduled appearance as commencement speaker for little over a week. Her remarks in February that historically black colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” sparked outrage in the African-American community. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded during the segregation-era when minorities weren’t allowed to attend the same institutions as whites.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Wednesday.
DeVos walked back her comments, later stating, “Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs.”
DeVos also faced backlash after her appointment of Attorney Candice Jackson as deputy assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights. The new acting head of the department once complained that she experienced discrimination because she was white
On Monday after HBCU was incorrectly spelled “HCBU” in a message from DeVos on the Education Department’s website, outrage and anger were expressed across social media. The error has since been corrected.
Above the jeers, DeVos delivered the exhortation to graduates to live a life of service, with courage and grace in the spirit of their school’s namesake.
DeVos spoke to graduates on the importance of following in the footsteps of founder Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator, and civil rights activist, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and particularly with those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be here,” DeVos said. “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.”
DeVos implored, “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree. And while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.”
The crowd obliged only a few times during her roughly 20-minute-speech.
Faculty at Bethune-Cookman University stood in solidarity behind DeVos as she spoke. University President Edison Jackson stood with arms folded and eyes fixated on protesters while audience members booed and graduates stood with their backs turned.
Hadiya Bomani, a graduate and member of Delta Sigma Theta who turned her back to DeVos, said the issue is deeper than the commencement speech.
“It’s more so the university that we have an issue with at the fact that they brought her to our celebration,” Bomani said. “It wasn’t time for them to make a political decision on our behalf, it was a time to celebrate us.”
Bethune-Cookman Graduates stand and turn their backs during a commencement exercise speech by Education
Secretary Betsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman University.
Boos resurged when DeVos said she would visit Bethune’s grave and “pay her respects.”
Bethune is buried on campus. Her home is also located on campus, which has been designated a national landmark.
Critics of DeVos pointed to missteps from the outset of her tenure—e.g., her office’s misspelling the name of W.E.B. DuBois in an attempted tribute, to a statement she issued calling segregation-era historically black colleges and universities “pioneers of school choice.” The mistakes, along with President Trump’s seemingly wavering support for HBCUs and a strained relationship with African-Americans, made Ms. DeVos an especially unlikely choice.
Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of Bethune-Cookman, who generated the first petition calling for Ms. DeVos to be replaced as this year’s graduation speaker said,
“Even though she apologized, she has shown how tone deaf she is, and how disconnected she is from our community,”
Activists dropped off boxes filled with petitions, reportedly having 50,000 signatures, to the school’s administration on Tuesday night in a last-ditch effort to keep Ms. DeVos from speaking.
In a letter to the community defending the choice of Ms. DeVos, Mr. Jackson wrote, “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.”
Other prominent black leaders also defended the university’s decision to invite Ms. DeVos. Michael Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, wrote on Twitter shortly after Ms. DeVos was named speaker, “I believe we should hear Secretary DeVos at @bethunecookman, just as we want her and President Trump to hear the voices of #HBCUs.”