DeVos Booed By Bethune-Cookman Graduates During Commencement Address

Alvin Kelly
May 11, 2017

In a speech delivered amid constant streams of boos and chants, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed the graduates of historically black institution Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida on Wednesday.

An online petition with over 6,000 supporters wants to stop DeVos from delivering the commencement speech, charging the secretary had reduced consumer protections for student loan repayment plans and amnesty programs - something numerous Bethune-Cookman's students depend upon. Some have rescinded invitations to potentially controversial speakers.

HBCUs were created in response to Jim Crow laws in the South that prevented black students from attending other schools. Some people are questioning why the education secretary, part of an administration that keeps fumbling its message about HBCUs, was chosen to deliver the keynote address.

In the days before her speech at B-CU, students and alumni circulated a petition asking the school to choose another speaker for the commencement ceremony. "Graduates-to-be, would you please be seated?"

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Reports of those threats led the Florida chapter of the NAACP to call for Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson and the school's board of trustees chairman to resign.

When she spoke about how she would later visit the home and gravesite of the school's founder, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, some in the crowd could be heard shouting, "No!"

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Amidst her speech, President Jackson interrupted and asked the students to "choose which way you want to go" and said "your degrees will be mailed to you".

There was one moment of levity in the long, harsh slog: when DeVos told students with a straight face, "I am at the table fighting on your behalf". She was lambasted for failing to understand a question about student evaluation at a Senate hearing and only narrowly won confirmation. Some members of the crowd also walked out during her speech with their fists up in the air, according to reporters on the ground.

Peaceful protests against DeVos' appearance began last week, with demonstrators holding placards that read "DeVos No" and "Our tax $s pay for public education".

Some see this as her ignoring the problems of the U.S. public education system she is tasked with leading.

"We are always about the business of making new friends", Jackson said.

"One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore, and experience that which we deem as 'other, ' " Jackson said in an open letter to the school community the same day as the announcement.

In a statement Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) promised to keep fighting to expand black students' access to higher education and ensure equity in K-12 education for communities of color despite what the Trump administration does.

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