Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will deliver the keynote address next week at the commencement of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, the historically black institution announced Monday.
And many were startled when DeVos issued a statement after the meeting that praised historically black colleges as pioneers of school choice, because the schools were started at a time of racial segregation in the South.
The following day in a meeting with HBCU leaders, DeVos noted that the school system at the time failed to provide African Americans access to a quality education or, more often, any education at all.
Still, her selection as commencement speaker touched off controversy at the college in Daytona Beach, which was founded by civil rights activist and educational icon Mary McLeod Bethune.
In a news release Monday, the university said: “Much like Dr. Bethune, Founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience. Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune.”
“Dr. Bethune’s love for students started with five little girls and grew to over 250 students during her time as university president,” Edison Jackson, the college’s president, said in the statement.
The release also noted the importance of funding from the Education Department, and praised DeVos for her charitable contributions.
A spokesman for the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An online petition calling on the university to choose someone else had about 2,800 digital signatures midday Monday.
The petition argues that the Trump administration’s actions on lending make it more difficult for students to pay for college and pay down their debt, and that DeVos does not have an understanding of the importance of historically black colleges:
We, the proud alumni of Bethune-Cookman University, understand the importance of engagement and open communication HBCUs must have with all levels of government; therefore instead of inviting Secretary DeVos to graduation, let’s welcome her to the table and have meaningful dialogue about stronger policies, the White House HBCU Initiative, and the importance and contributions of HBCUs.Bethune-Cookman University doesn’t need a photo op from the Trump Administration, we need action done by this administration for all HBCUs.Please rescind her invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony.
Others expressed frustration over the choice on social media.
Jackson, the president of Bethune-Cookman, also noted in the release that, “The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU.”