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Betsy DeVos made her first visit to a school as education secretary: Howard University

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to employees at the Education Department in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Betsy DeVos, just sworn in as education secretary after Vice President Pence cast a tiebreaking vote in the Senate to confirm her appointment, visited Howard University on Thursday to meet with university leaders.

It was her first visit as secretary. On Friday, she visited Jefferson Academy, a public school in Washington, where protesters greeted her outside the school.

DeVos’s nomination highlighted stark divides in education policy. Best known as an ardent supporter of charter schools, vouchers for private schools and other options to traditional public education, she draws praise as an agent for change unafraid to take on powerful teachers’ unions and bureaucracy. She also draws criticism for her lack of support for public schools, and many critics urged senators to vote against someone they saw as a billionaire donor with limited understanding of education.

Reaction to the choice of Howard as her first visit as secretary mirrored some of that split: To supporters, the visit served as an important symbol of her commitment to equity in education. To detractors, it was a photo op, devoid of substance.

At Howard, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black universities, DeVos spoke of the importance of such institutions.

In a statement, DeVos said: “It was a pleasure to meet with Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick and several student leaders this morning. We had a robust discussion around the many challenges facing higher education and the important role of HBCUs.

“Howard University plays a unique and valuable role in the fabric of our higher education system, and I am honored to help celebrate its 150th anniversary. I look forward to visiting many schools across our great country and continuing the discussion on how we can increase access to affordable, quality higher education.”

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Student opinion has been strongly opposed to the Trump administration, said Allyson Carpenter, president of the Howard University Student Association, with ongoing meetings about how to respond to and engage with the administration. She said she was both surprised and not surprised that the university was chosen for a first visit.

“Howard is the mecca,” she said, “a university known for its academic excellence. “I know this administration has a knack for — how can I say this — taking pictures with the right people, I guess.”

Carpenter said the visit “was  a great symbol,” and one that she believes probably reflects the role that Omarosa Manigault, a Howard alumna, plays in the administration. Manigault is communications director for the White House Office of Public Liaison “We don’t know if those are just photo-ops,” she said. “We won’t know until we see the policy that comes out.”

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Lezli Baskerville, who leads the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, said she thought it was a positive signal that DeVos chose to visit Howard first.

While leaders of historically black postsecondary schools have met with political leaders of every administration for decades, she said, “something else is going on here.”

Baskerville said that Manigault’s role in the administration could help keep HBCUs a part of the conversation. “Having had that experience and having remained connected to historically black colleges and universities,” she said of Manigault, “she’s been moving with precision and dispatch from within to make sure that HBCUs are a critical space not just in education but in workforce preparation … they could be the epicenter for economic development for urban areas that President Trump talks about — and rural, as we have land-grant institutions.”

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President Trump said while campaigning that he would ensure funding for historically black colleges and universities. After the election, administration officials reached out to her organization and others to talk about the issues facing such schools, Baskerville said.

Some Republican members of Congress, organized by Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.), have invited leaders of historically black colleges and universities to meet later this month at the Library of Congress to talk about working with the federal government and business community. Baskerville said that outreach is an opportunity for HBCUs.

Carpenter said of the invitation, “After today, we’ll be watching even more closely.”

Scott said, in a statement, that he and Walker  “are looking forward to continuing current conversations, opening new lines of communication and reassuring their student body that we understand the immense value and talents that come from each of our HBCUs.

“During the time I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ms. DeVos, I’ve seen her as a person that celebrates and embraces all forms of quality education. Having visited Howard and nearly a dozen HBCUs myself, I am very pleased to see she has immediately begun working with these important institutions. Knowing her character, and her passion for ensuring every American has access to a quality education, I am not at all surprised that she has expressed her support for HBCUs.”

At Jefferson Academy on Friday, protesters blocked DeVos from entering a side door to visit the D.C. middle school. The education secretary eventually entered the school through another door.

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At Howard, Carpenter said, most people didn’t know about the meeting until after it was over. She said that without a transcript or other account of remarks from the meeting Thursday, many students were curious about what was discussed. Many were skeptical of the motive for the event, she said, and frustrated to learn of DeVos’s visit from social media.

A person familiar with campus leadership who requested anonymity to speak freely questioned who the “student leaders” who met with DeVos were.

The student newspaper at Howard posted on social media:

A leader of the faculty senate did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Spokesmen for Howard University and for the Education Department declined to provide details of the meeting, saying it was closed to the press. Howard’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, released a statement:

Howard University is pleased that Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, chose to visit our institution as her first official campus visit.
We have a long-standing, successful relationship with the Department of Education and I look forward to advancing this relationship under the Secretary’s leadership. Our conversation today was a very meaningful one and I welcome the opportunity to continue discussing the many ways we can work together to forward the work of higher education, specifically that of Howard University, Howard University Middle School of Mathematics & Science, and HBCUs in general.