Boos and jeers from graduating seniors greeted billionaire U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she began her commencement address Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University.
The graduating class also turned their backs in protest against someone they believe has insulted the Black community and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
“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 told graduates of the historically Black university in Daytona Beach, Fla.
As boos toward the education secretary grew louder, the university’s president, Edison Jackson, interrupted her speech with a warning to the approximately 300 graduating students.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”
Nevertheless, many students persisted.
Jackson invited DeVos to speak at the graduation ceremony. In an opinion piece for the Orlando Sentinel published May 3, the college president said he did not object to inviting a potentially controversial speaker.
“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,” Jackson wrote.
Students, alumni and political activists sought to have DeVos’ invitation withdrawn, saying they were offended by her earlier comments. In February, the education secretary, a proponent of school choice, sparked controversy when she said, in a now-recanted statement, that HBCUs were “pioneers” of educational choice.
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos said. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos demonstrated her lack of knowledge on the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities after the meeting took place, calling them examples of “school choice.”
Supporters of HBCUs noted that the institutions were founded because Black students couldn’t enroll in predominantly white colleges in the South, even public institutions. African Americans had no choice but to create colleges and universities. DeVos later clarified her remarks.
President Donald Trump said in a statement on Sunday that DeVos chose Bethune-Cookman for her first commencement address as education secretary to show the Republican administration’s dedication to the mission of HBCUs.
However, during the same weekend, a statement was released from the White House implying that some financial programs for HBCUs may be unconstitutional.
A White House statement has left HBCU supporters questioning if the president’s support for HBCUs was in fact just a photo op.
About 60,000 signatures on two petitions were delivered to school officials on Tuesday objecting to DeVos’ appearance at the university, which was named for Black educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
According to CNN, “a university official, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want to steal the spotlight from the university’s president, said 6,000 of the petitions were properly filled out, and of those, the majority came from outside the campus and Daytona Beach.”
During her commencement speech, DeVos said she was there to reaffirm the Trump administration’s commitment to HBCUs.
“While we will undoubtedly disagree at times I hope we can do so respectfully,” she said. “Let’s choose to hear one another out. I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for [historically Black colleges and universities] and the students they serve.”
Boos also broke out when DeVos was awarded an honorary doctorate and when she said she would visit the home of Bethune to pay her respects.
Sean P. Jackson, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, said DeVos had long been a champion of providing strong education opportunities for minority students, according to Reuters.
“The secretary says we should allow charter schools to come in and educate children if they are doing a better job than the public schools,” Jackson said on Tuesday.
Devos wasn’t the only member of the Trump administration that was booed on Wednesday. Presidential aide Omarosa Manigault was also in attendance. Manigault received a similar response when her name was announced.