Students boo DeVos at Bethune-Cookman commencement

University president: 'You don't know her story'
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on April 26, 2017.
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington on April 26, 2017.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Protesters gathered at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida Wednesday before Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave the keynote address at the historically black school’s commencement Wednesday afternoon.

Omarosa Manigault, an adviser to President Donald Trump, also attended the commencement. When university President Edison Jackson introduced her, students started booing loudly. Jackson stopped, then said, “You don’t know her story.”

On Tuesday, protesters delivered petitions signed by thousands of people demanding that university leaders drop plans to have DeVos speak.

“I was in shock,” said graduating student Jasmine Johnson, describing her reaction when she learned who would address her and her classmates. She said she doesn’t think DeVos, a philanthropist and strong proponent of school choice, private and charter schools, understands public schools, or historically black colleges.

“For someone to come and speak at my commencement that cannot relate to me or know what I have been through is kind of like a slap in the face,” she said. And she worries her student loans will be even more difficult to pay back after some of DeVos’s actions.

The university’s president, Edison Jackson, wrote in a letter to the campus community that a willingness to engage with varying viewpoints is a hallmark of higher education. “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,” he wrote. “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.”

A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Elizabeth Hill, wrote in an email that “the Secretary is looking forward to delivering the 2017 Commencement Address at Bethune-Cookman University and to engaging in productive dialogue with the students, faculty, and staff during her visit.

“Commencements are a time to celebrate the graduates and that’s what she will be focused on while at B-CU on Wednesday.”

The commencement speech, DeVos’ first as education secretary, is the latest effort by Trump and his administration to reach out to historically black colleges. Over the past several months, that outreach has been marked, including an Oval Office meeting with scores of college leaders. And it has at times been awkward, as when DeVos described such schools as pioneers of school choice – words that her opponents repeated often. She has also noted that African Americans had been systemically excluded from quality, or any, education at the time.

On Friday, President Trump seemed to signal that a key funding source for such schools might be unconstitutional, startling HBCU leaders who have relied on the funds for decades. On Sunday, he followed that with a statement of “unwavering support” for historically black colleges.

So DeVos’ speech at the Daytona Beach school, which was founded by a civil rights icon, comes at a particularly fraught time.

Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of Bethune-Cookman working as a community organizer and political activist, started a petition online. He said he grew up hearing about the school’s founder, activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, whose legacy is honored there. He said he didn’t object to DeVos coming to campus to speak, but felt she was the wrong person to represent the school at commencement.

“Do not use Bethune-Cookman as a photo op,” he said Tuesday, shortly before delivering petitions to the administration building. “Come to the table with something that is going to actually do something, in terms of policy, funding.”

The NAACP Florida State Conference called on DeVos to decline to give the speech. If she speaks and is given an honorary degree, it would be insulting to minorities, women and all communities of color, Adora Obi Nweze, the NAACP Florida State Conference president, said in a written statement.

State and national education unions dove into the fight as well.

People are outraged, said Fed Ingram, vice president of the Florida Education Association and an alumnus of the school. Ninety percent of students who attend Bethune-Cookman were educated in public schools, he said. “This is a woman who throughout her ‘career’ has condemned public schools, has said these are dead-end schools.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers said Tuesday, “The kids have worked really hard at a historically black college without the resources they need to get an education in a school that was created because of segregation and discrimination.” The choice movement grew out of segregation, she said. “Those of us who are neither students nor alums are just a megaphone,” she said, for that message.

It’s a powerful megaphone: They said they had collected more than 50,000 digital signatures on the three petitions in a matter of days.

Jackson responded on campus radio Tuesday afternoon to the petitions, challenging those who brought them to be supporters of the school, to donate, to work for positive change. He spoke of the importance of working with people with influence, even if they seem to have an opposing viewpoint, and persuading them of the needs. He said he wanted to get DeVos to recognize there are children who are suffering and falling by the wayside. And he said he wanted to be at the table. He cited an expression: ” ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’

“The truth of the matter is that she is passionate about education,” he said.

He marveled that Bethune-Cookman had been selected by such a prominent national leader for her first commencement speech, and said it spoke volumes about its founder and what the school is. “It kind of makes you want to do a little hula dance, a shout for God for what he’s done.”

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