Commencement speeches aren’t usually interrupted with a warning that booing students will have to get their diplomas mailed to them if they don’t shut up. But that’s what happened on Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered the graduation address before a feisty, often booing crowd of students.
They booed her before she gave her speech. They booed her when she started delivering her remarks. And they booed her during her address. There were cheers and applause too, but the boos won the day.
The moment was extraordinary, not only because it was DeVos’s first commencement address as education secretary but also because it was at a historically black college, and because she was speaking in the face of protests in which tens of thousands of people had asked the school to disinvite her.
The appearance was so controversial in large part because of remarks she made calling historically black colleges and universities — which were created because blacks couldn’t attend white schools — “pioneers” of school choice. After meeting in February with HBCU presidents in Washington D.C., she said.
They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. 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.
College President Edison O. Jackson, who invited her, defended his choice in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed saying students don’t benefit when they are “only limited to perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.”
Tens of thousands of people signed petitions asking that she be disinvited, and there were calls for the resignation of the president of the university who had invited her to speak, Edison O. Jackson. Protesters spoke out on Twitter, including #backstoDevos, and some alumni said they would return their diplomas.
At the ceremony, DeVos was initially introduced as a guest by a school official, who mentioned that DeVos had been nominated by President Trump. The crowd booed loudly. Boos also could be heard when DeVos’s history as a pro-choice education activist was mentioned.
When she started her speech, boos began again immediately but this time she was also met with loud applause and cheers. She spoke directly to those “who disagree” with her, saying that it is important to have “the ability to converse” with opponents and “learn from those with whom we disagree.”
That didn’t stop the protesters. Screams and boos from the crowd became so loud that the president of the school stood up, interrupted DeVos, took to the microphone, and said to the students, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
There was loud applause, and it was unclear whether the students would be quiet. Eventually they did, and she began speaking again, talking about her commitment to helping all students get a good education. The crowd was not entirely silent, however, with shouts, and chants mixed with applause heard throughout.
Here’s the text of her speech, as provided by the Education Department:
Thank you, Dr. Jackson, for that very kind introduction.
It’s a real privilege — and honor — to be with you as we celebrate the Bethune-Cookman University class of 2017! Congratulations to all of you!
In addition to the graduates, there are so many people deserving of special recognition today: parents, grandparents, family members and friends of the graduates, thank you for your effort in helping them get to this point. First Lady Florence Jackson, Chairman Petrock and Members of the Board, Provost Walrond and members of the administrative staff and faculty, and the entire Bethune-Cookman community, thank you for the important role you all play in making today possible for these students.
Mayor Henry, thank you for those encouraging words, and thank you and the other state and local elected officials for being here today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and particularly with those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be here. One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.
And while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.
I want to re-affirm this Administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve. Please know this: we support you, and we will continue to support you. That is one reason why we support restoring year-round Pell Grants. This commonsense solution will enable more students to further their educations without taking on additional debt.
I am at the table fighting on your behalf, and on behalf of all students across this great nation.
I also want to acknowledge that we all arrived here today with different life experiences and different perspectives. I view that not as a negative, but as a gift.
Anytime we meet someone new, we have two options: we can focus on differences that might divide us, or we can choose to listen, to be receptive and to learn from others’ experiences and perspectives. In my life, I have endeavored to do the latter, and as you leave this arena today, I hope you too, will chose this posture as you set out on this new and exciting stage of your life’s adventure.
I am here to celebrate you and all of your achievements. We are all here to applaud your perseverance and to encourage each of you to keep working to reach your full potential. And I’m here to demonstrate, in the most tangible way I know how, that I and the entire Administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.
That commitment to success is one I know I share with your President, Dr. Edison Jackson.
Dr. Jackson has long focused on creating opportunities for students and is an authentic advocate for lifelong learning. Each of you who has had occasion to interact with or work alongside Dr. Jackson knows he has a profound, deep-seeded faith and an abiding belief in the transformational power of character, moral courage and purpose.
Dr. Jackson, thank you for your daily work to secure and make available a life-changing education for the students you serve. Your career is a personal inspiration to me, and it is the embodiment of B-CU’s motto: Enter to Learn; Depart to Serve.
A CALL TO SERVE
Graduates, you have heeded the first charge in that motto, and today stand at the interval preceding the second. I challenge you to leave this arena, faithful to completing the mission. The words are simple, yet powerful: depart to serve.
It is good and right to pause today to celebrate your individual successes, but after that reflection, I am confident you will find service more rewarding than anything else. In serving, you will always reap more than you sow.
The degree conferred on you today is the culmination of time, energy and effort invested and knowledge, experience and skills gained. However, the sum of your education here involved far more than sleepless nights spent cramming for a big exam, hours invested putting the finishing touches on papers, and time devoted to clubs, organizations and causes. The whole of your time at Bethune-Cookman University — your experiences, your relationships and your hard work — has laid a foundation for you to appreciate your responsibilities to your peers, your community, your country and the world.
Today you transition from student to graduate. What may have seemed an eternity away the moment you walked onto campus is now standing before you. You’ll leave this place as the leaders who will transform the world.
The tomorrow for which you’ve worked so hard to prepare has arrived, and it’s yours to shape. Your actions will determine the type of world you create, enjoy and leave to your children and grandchildren.
I posit that a fundamental component in that pursuit to shape your world can be found in personal service.
You may choose to give back by mentoring or volunteering. You may pour your life into creating equal opportunities for all, pursuing justice, tackling the toughest medical challenges, educating the rising generation, donning our Nation’s uniform to protect and defend our freedoms or making a discovery on the cutting edge of science, technology or engineering.
I know BCU has prepared each of you well for these tasks. The human heart is hardwired toward service, and it’s embedded in the DNA of this institution.
No doubt you know Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s amazing story very well, but let me share some of it for those beyond this hall who don’t. She was a visionary, a leader I admire and respect, and someone about whom all Americans should know.
As one of 17 children born to parents who knew firsthand the horrors and injustice of slavery, Dr. Bethune was the only member of her family to be educated in a formal school setting. For her, education was a gift and an incredible privilege. She believed it was her sacred duty to use her education to uplift others.
So in 1904, with a burning determination in her soul and a meager dollar-fifty in her pocket, Dr. Bethune built a school from the ground up. Over the course of her incredible 79-year lifespan, she fought for one singular and invaluable goal: to provide African-American children access to a quality education, access they were otherwise unjustly denied.
Her commitment to service is what has brought us together today. This inspired daughter of slaves refused to accept repulsive and systemic racism. She moved mountains, changing the lives and futures of countless students and families across generations.
Just think about the impact of Dr. Bethune’s selfless, singular focus. Then consider the influence that you, as a graduate, could have on the lives of others — both now and into the future. All that is required for world-shaking change is your conscious and courageous decision to serve. Your path here was shaped by others — educators, parents, family members, neighbors and friends. Never forget that. Through serving others, you can extend that legacy.
A CALL TO COURAGE
Later today I will have the honor of visiting Dr. Bethune’s home and paying my respects at her gravesite. I am moved by words in her last will and testament, where Dr. Bethune described what she hoped her legacy would be.
The beautifully written testament cited love, hope and a thirst for education as the ideals she wanted people to embrace in her memory. She concluded with a section titled ‘A Responsibility to our Young People,’ and made clear her unshakeable belief that the world’s fate belonged to the youth she dedicated her entire life to serving. In it, she wrote:
“Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”
I note three core themes in her words:
First: aim high, aspire to greatness. Dr. Bethune believed, without wavering, that your potential is limitless.
Second: take responsibility for your families and your communities and never tolerate inequality or injustice.
Third: proceed with courage to change old ideas that hold others back.
These are charges — and encouragements — I echo to each of you today. Dr. Bethune believed students — you — had an unlimited potential to affect positive change, and with good reason. She’d done it herself.
As you leave, each of you will be called to embody courage in different ways and to rise to different challenges. The way you answer those calls will determine not just the future of you and your homes, but of your communities, this great nation and your world.
Your university serves as a reminder that every student, without exception, deserves a high-quality education.
Some of you graduates are the first in your families to earn a college degree, and some of you have overcome incredible personal hardships to reach this day.
Deondre Jamal Sanstad was the victim of an accidental shooting after his freshman year. His doctor told him he would never walk again, but Deondre had different plans. Not only did he resume his studies, he poured himself into his rehabilitation and got back on his feet. Today, Deondre stands tall among you as a candidate to receive his degree, and is already taking the next steps to pursue an MBA.
Ca’Netta General never really thought about attending college before landing at BCU as a non-traditional student. But with help from the Palm Beach Urban League, she found her passion for helping others through radio and television. This discovery fueled her confidence and commitment to her studies, as her ambitions soared. Ca’Netta became involved with 14 organizations and numerous other campus activities and today is an accomplished mass communications graduate.
Jahlil Yuzell Witt is graduating today with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in Marketing.
Jahlil was born to a single mother who struggled with drug addiction. At a very young age he entered the foster care system, where he was subjected to a never-ending cycle of neglect and abuse. Despite the extraordinary challenges he faced throughout his upbringing, he exceled at his studies at B-CU and went on to become Mr. B-CU, Mr. Sophomore, and he even developed a motivational program called “From Blocks to Books” dedicated to inspiring and empowering young people. Jahlil also writes and performs music. After graduation, he plans to relocate to Atlanta to pursue his dream of starting a record label.
Each of these students’ stories is one of courage. These stories speak to how BCU rises to meet the unique needs of every student it serves. We should aspire to make all of America’s educational institutions mirror that model — a singular focus on the needs of individual students.
Our nation has made remarkable progress since Dr. Bethune founded this University, but addressing inequities in our education system remains a very real challenge. Empowering students with the opportunity to pursue the best possible education has been my focus for the past three decades. America is simply too great a country to deny any child this equal opportunity.
Your courage will be needed to confront this challenge as you raise families, pursue careers and lead in communities across the nation. I hope each of us will leave here today challenged to ensure no child is denied the benefits of a quality education.
Many of you have already shown courage in this regard by pursuing teaching as a vocation. I want to take a moment to highlight and honor each of you who are graduating from the College of Education.
Not coincidentally, this is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I hope each of you will take a moment to reach out and thank a teacher who was impactful in your life — many of them no doubt with us here today. I expect many of you are here in part because, somewhere along the line, a teacher went out of his or her way to make sure you succeeded.
Please join me now in personally thanking and applauding each of you who have served, serve or will serve, as an educator.
A CALL TO GRACE
Education broadens our horizons and enables us to confront realities we’d never before anticipated.
We should welcome these opportunities with open arms. We should embrace the chance to grow and to serve. We should pursue these opportunities with humility, with perseverance and with grace.
That is my final challenge to you: approach the unanticipated, the unexpected, the unforeseen with grace.
Spend just a few minutes watching your favorite cable news channel and you’ll experience the startling polarization happening across the United States. On social media, groups and individuals pit themselves one against the other, not to discuss and debate the merits of deeply held beliefs, but to see who can yell the loudest, score the quickest political points or best silence the other’s voice.
The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mindset of grace. We must first listen, then speak — with humility — to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree.
These verses from Colossians have been a guide for me: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Those words are as relevant today as when they were first imparted.
They are exhortations with the power to transform our approach to life, our commitment to our neighbors and our discourse with one another.
Elie Wiesel, who survived the horrors of Auschwitz, put it well: “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
I will admit many in my generation haven’t done a great job when it comes to dealing with one another in grace. You have an opportunity to do better, to lead the way towards a new era of engagement in our communities.
You leave this place today with many obligations, but I hope you’ll consider the three challenges I’ve presented:
A call to service.
A call to courage.
And a call to grace.
Years from now when someone asks you, “Why do you serve?” you can respond, “Because a great woman — a great leader — a great American — Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune — inspired me.”
When you face the challenges of your day, you can say, “I was courageous because Dr. Bethune showed me the way.”
And when some pursue dissention, you can engage in debate with grace and poise, just as Dr. Bethune did.
Each of you has a story of your own, waiting to be written. You make us proud — and more than that, you give us hope.
You have achieved something special today. I am humbled by the opportunity to be with you, to share in this momentous occasion in your life, to cheer on your past and continued success.
Congratulations, and may God continue to bless our nation, Bethune-Cookman University and each of you, the Class of 2017.
Here were some of the tweets protesting her speech:
— ColorOfChange.org (@ColorOfChange) May 10, 2017
— ashley yates (@brownblaze) May 9, 2017