DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Graduating students booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she spoke here Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement, and many turned their backs to protest her appearance at the historically black school.
The speech was part of the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to reach out to historically black colleges and universities. Many students and alumni had objected to having DeVos as speaker in part because they said that outreach is an empty gesture or because they were offended by a remark she had made about historically black schools. But the university president defended DeVos’s work as a philanthropist and her commitment to education.
The speech attracted national attention at a time of heated debates over academic freedom. At many schools, protests have broken out when students objected to the views of controversial speakers, while others defended their right to voice unpopular views. Some saw the demonstrations against the speech as righteous indignation, while others saw a lack of civility.
At Bethune-Cookman, alumni and others delivered petitions this week to administrators with thousands of signatures demanding that DeVos not be allowed to speak. The state’s NAACP chapter called on the university president to resign, and a national teachers’ union amplified the opposition.
On Wednesday, graduates came into the auditorium smiling, many with flowers and other decorations plastered on their mortarboards, and listened to the ceremony politely, until Edison Jackson, the university’s president, introduced Omarosa Manigault, an adviser to President Trump. Students started booing. Jackson stopped and said: “You don’t know her. You don’t know her story.”
School leaders at the front of the room and some faculty applauded as he introduced DeVos to give her an honorary doctorate. But many students booed. When she began speaking, thanking Jackson, the room erupted with shouts. DeVos had to raise her voice as she thanked the moms attending the ceremony.
About half of the 380 graduates turned their backs on her.
“Choose which way you want to go,” Jackson said sternly as the disruptions continued.
Many later sat down, but shouts continued as she spoke, saying that one of the hallmarks of higher education and democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom they disagree.
DeVos pledged the administration’s support to their success. “I am at the table fighting on your behalf,” she said. In her speech, she talked of the importance of historically black schools and of year-round Pell grants for students from low-income families.
She also talked about the need to listen to other viewpoints and noted the increasing polarization evident on cable news and social media.
“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” she said at one point.
When she spoke about how she would later visit the home and gravesite of the school’s founder, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, some in the crowd could be heard shouting, “No!”
DeVos told graduates: “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. . . .
“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 mind-set 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.”
Donjele Simpson, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, was one of a dozen students who kept their backs turned on DeVos for almost all of her speech. “She made racist comments about HBCUs, she doesn’t know anything about us, and she has the nerve to come down here and speak to us,” Simpson said. “And then she has the nerve to speak about Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy. What does she know about that?”
Earlier in the day, DeVos met with 12 student leaders, including Jacari Harris, a junior and former student body president, who said he was thrilled to have DeVos at his school. “She’s awesome. I’m so glad she’s here,” Harris said. “She’s very transparent. She has a listening ear. We told her about some of the issues we are facing, about students who are single parents or come from single-parent families, even students who are homeless, and she agreed that we need to find a way to address all of this. She knows the need. It was a great dialogue.”
Tensions had been high for days. On Tuesday, protesters delivered petitions signed by thousands of people demanding that university leaders drop plans to have DeVos speak.
“I was in shock,” said graduating student Jasmine Johnson, describing her reaction when she learned who would address her and her classmates. She said she doesn’t think DeVos — a philanthropist and strong proponent of school choice, private and charter schools — understands public schools or historically black colleges.
“For someone to come and speak at my commencement that cannot relate to me or know what I have been through is kind of like a slap in the face,” she said. And she worries her student loans will be even more difficult to pay back under the Trump administration’s actions.
Jackson wrote in a letter to the campus community that a willingness to engage with varying viewpoints is a hallmark of higher education. “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,” he wrote. “If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”
A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Elizabeth Hill, wrote in an email before the event that DeVos “is looking forward to delivering the 2017 Commencement Address at Bethune-Cookman University and to engaging in productive dialogue with the students, faculty, and staff during her visit.
“Commencements are a time to celebrate the graduates and that’s what she will be focused on while at B-CU on Wednesday.”
The commencement speech, DeVos’s first as education secretary, is the latest effort by Trump and his administration to reach out to historically black colleges. Over the past several months, that outreach has been marked, including an Oval Office meeting with scores of college leaders. And it has at times been awkward, as when DeVos described such schools as pioneers of school choice — words that her opponents repeated often. She has also noted that African Americans had been systemically excluded from quality, or any, education at the time.
On Friday, Trump seemed to signal that a key funding source for such schools might be unconstitutional, startling HBCU leaders who have relied on the funds for decades. On Sunday, he followed that with a statement of “unwavering support” for historically black colleges.
So DeVos’s speech at the Daytona Beach school came at a particularly fraught time.
Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of Bethune-Cookman working as a community organizer and political activist, started a petition online. He said he grew up hearing about the school’s founder, whose legacy is honored there. He said he didn’t object to DeVos coming to campus to speak, but felt she was the wrong person to represent the school at commencement.
“Do not use Bethune-Cookman as a photo op,” he said Tuesday, shortly before delivering petitions to the administration building. “Come to the table with something that is going to actually do something, in terms of policy, funding.”
The NAACP Florida State Conference called on DeVos to decline to give the speech. If she speaks and is given an honorary degree, it would be insulting to minorities, women and all communities of color, Adora Obi Nweze, the NAACP Florida State Conference president, said in a written statement.
State and national education unions dove into the fight as well.
People are outraged, said Fed Ingram, vice president of the Florida Education Association and a graduate of the school. Ninety percent of students who attend Bethune-Cookman were educated in public schools, he said. “This is a woman who throughout her ‘career’ has condemned public schools, has said these are dead-end schools.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday, “The kids have worked really hard at a historically black college without the resources they need to get an education in a school that was created because of segregation and discrimination.” The choice movement grew out of segregation, she said. “Those of us who are neither students nor alums are just a megaphone,” she said, for that message.
It’s a powerful megaphone: They said they had collected more than 50,000 digital signatures on the three petitions in a matter of days.
Joe Petrock, chairman of the board of trustees for Bethune-Cookman, took the NAACP to task for calling for Jackson’s ouster. “The NAACP has done some great, great things over the years, we can’t take that away from them,” Petrock said in a news conference before the ceremony. “But now I would challenge them to raise some funds to help support this school and our students.”
Jackson responded on campus radio Tuesday afternoon to the petitions, challenging those who brought them to be supporters of the school, to donate, to work for positive change. He spoke of the importance of working with people with influence, even if they seem to have an opposing viewpoint, and persuading them of the needs. He said he wanted to get DeVos to recognize that there are children who are suffering and falling by the wayside. And he said he wanted to be at the table. He cited an expression: “ ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
“The truth of the matter is that she is passionate about education,” he said.
Jackson told reporters at a news conference before the ceremony that he respects the right of his critics to disagree but that he believes the university was lucky to have DeVos as the speaker. “Can you imagine how many institutions would love to have the secretary of education, the highest education officer in the land, be their commencement speaker? Can you imagine the doors this could open?” Jackson said.
Read her full remarks as prepared here: