UPDATE: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was met with deafening boos as she delivered the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday, May 10.
Incessant shouts and boos erupted from graduates and their families of the historically Black university, causing DeVos to stumble over words and speed through portions of her speech, BuzzFeed News reported. At one point, a university administrator had to step in and quell the boos.
The education secretary’s appearance also prompted more than a dozen students to turn their backs on her as she was speaking. The news site reported that some members of the crowd were removed from the building with their “Black power” fists raised high in the air while others shouted “Hell nah” as DeVos discussed the different life experiences of those in the room.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is slated to deliver the commencement speech at a historically Black college this week and people are none too happy about it.
Students, faculty and alumni of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., have been fighting to have DeVos removed as commencement speaker ever since the historically Black university made the announcement last week. So far, an online petition hoping to put a stop to the contested education secretary’s speech has gained over 7,500 signatures.
“Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created in response to the exclusion of African-Americans from mainstream institutions,” the online petition read. “Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs … Having [her] speak at the commencement ceremony is an insult to the BCU graduating class, students, alumni, family, friends and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy.”
Several protests took place last week and more are expected on campus near the hall where DeVos is scheduled to address those graduating Wednesday May 10, according to CNN. Anti-Trump group Indivisible, the NAACP Florida Conference and students all plan to demonstrate at the ceremony.
DeVos, a wealthy philanthropist and politician, received sharp criticism earlier this year after meeting with leaders of historically Black institutions, then issuing a statement cheering the schools for being the “real pioneers of school choice.” The remark was especially worrisome for African-Americans, who blasted DeVos for omitting the fact that Black people were kept from attending white universities and thus forced to create their own.
In addition to her HBCU flub, students pointed to the education secretary’s recent move to weaken consumer protections for student loan borrowers, highlighting the fact that more than 95 percent of BCU undergrads rely on some form of need-based financial-aid.
Leaders of the NAACP Florida Conference have since demanded that university president Edison Jackson, as well as the school’s board chairman, step down after inviting DeVos to speak at graduation. The organization alleges that faculty members have been threatened with losing their jobs, while students might have their degrees retained for simply voicing their opposition to her appearance.
Jackson has defended the invitation, arguing that hearing the views of those with controversial or differing beliefs would actually be beneficial for students.
“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,” he said in an online statement.
Graduating seniors Taylor and Tyler Durrant don’t see it that way, however. The twin sisters described their soon-to-be alma mater’s choice for a graduation speaker as “embarrassing” and an “insult.”
“I think it’s just a slap in the face to understand now that we’re being sold … our legacy is being sold,” Tyler Durrant told ESSENCE magazine.
Taylor Durrant echoed her sister’s sentiments, arguing that DeVos knows little to nothing about the public education system.
“The U.S. Secretary of Education is someone who has never known what it is like to have financial aid,” Durrant said. “She is someone who has been rich all her life.
“She doesn’t know what going through the public education system means and what it can do to a student.”