Education Secretary Booed at Black College Commencement

Graduating students stand and turn their backs to Education Secretary during commencement ceremony.

Graduating students stand and turn their backs to Education Secretary during commencement ceremony.

An unwelcome reception awaited U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos as she delivered the commencement address on May 5 at Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU), a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida. B-CU has a student population of approximately 3,600.

Prior to DeVos’ arrival, a group delivered petitions with about 60,000 signatures asking B-CU  officials to cancel her speech, and there had been a demonstration protesting her appearance with some protesters holding signs that read “DeVos No” and “Our tax $s pay for public education.” Prior to the commencement ceremony, activists lined the sidewalk outside the convention center where the event occurred. Some carried signs, one of which read “DeVos is not worthy.”

During the program, as B-CU President began to award DeVos an honorary degree, many students started to boo.  More than half of the 380 graduates stood and turned their backs to   her as she was introduced, and a dozen remained so during her entire speech. Seconds after she began delivering her speech, loud shouts filled the room. Some graduating students shouted “Liar!” and “Just go.” At times, the shouts were so loud DeVos could not be heard.

When DeVos said she wanted to “acknowledge the different life experiences” of those in the crowd, students responded with chants of “hell, nah.” When DeVos announced that later in the day she would visit the home and gravesite of B-CU founder Mary Bethune to pay her respects, another round of boos occurred, accompanied by some shouts of “No!” Although the commencement program indicated DeVos would speak for more than an hour, she ended her address after about 20 minutes.

One reason for the protest against DeVos as commencement speaker is her statement in February that founders of historically black colleges and universities were “real pioneers” of school choice. Actually, the schools were founded out of necessity during the era of segregation when black students were prohibited from attending white colleges. DeVos has recanted the statement, conceding that racism was the impetus for establishment of historically black colleges.

DeVos is also criticized for diverting tax money from public schools to private and charter schools, for reducing consumer protections for student loan repayment and amnesty programs, and for her past negative remarks on public education.  Many B-CU students are graduates of public schools and depend on student loans to help finance their college education.

A graduate who received a master’s degree said, “DeVos was here to hear our differences and at the end of the day I think that’s what happened.”

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