Late last week, University of Baltimore leaders announced that the fall commencement speaker would be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
By Monday, there was a petition with almost 3,000 signatures, a statement from the student government association and two rallies planned on the public university campus, all protesting the choice.
“This is someone who is in direct contradiction to our values at the university,” said Keanuu Smith-Brown, vice president of the student government association, who will graduate this fall, citing commitment to public education and enforcement of federal Title IX law as examples. “We have to stand up to that, not back down to it.”
DeVos has been a controversial figure as Education Secretary. She has drawn praise from those who appreciate her attention to charter schools and innovation; DeVos launches a national “Rethink School” tour Tuesday to highlight creative approaches. And she has generated intense criticism from people concerned that she doesn’t support traditional public education.
At campuses across the country this year, divisive speakers have drawn extreme reactions and generated debates over whether students are unwilling to listen to ideas different from their own.
The university’s president, Kurt Schmoke, expected a strong reaction. A longtime former mayor of Baltimore, Schmoke invited DeVos in January. “I believe that hers is an important voice that should be heard,” he said, for her impact on education policy for years to come, so he is pleased that she accepted the invitation. “I also believe that it’s important for a university to hear from people with a wide range of views on topics that affect universities.”
He had seen some university leaders elsewhere in the country withdraw invitations to speakers because of opposition on campus to their views, he said. “I thought that was wrong. … I thought the University of Baltimore was the right place to affirm our commitment to freedom of speech. I believe that’s what we’re doing.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Smith-Brown said they had also heard from students who supported having DeVos speak, but that the overwhelming majority of response had been negative.
Commencement is a personal event for students and families, the group wrote, ” … and her controversial presence may overshadow the significance of this celebratory event.”
The group suggested that DeVos could be hosted more appropriately in a setting at which students could question her policy decisions, and asked that students be included in conversations about whom to invite to speak at commencement.
“The SGA stands in support of our students in asking that Secretary DeVos’s invitation is rescinded. We demand that the graduating class of 2017, and those thereafter, have a voice in who is selected as their Commencement speaker.”
Activists called on students to walk out of classes at noon and again on Monday evening and swarm the school’s plaza.
Political candidates jumped in, too. Two gubernatorial candidates, Democrats Alec Ross and Ben Jealous, announced plans to be on campus. Jealous, former president of the NAACP, said, “I’m going to stand with the students and the graduates of the university as they express their concern and outrage.”
Jealous, a visiting professor at Princeton University, said by phone Monday, “I fully support universities bringing controversial lightning rods to campus — pretty much any day except for commencement.” That’s a day to celebrate students’ hard work at the public university, he said. “On a day like that they should have a speaker that affirms those students’ values, their vision for their lives — not someone who seems antagonistic to the very idea of public education itself.”
Smith-Brown said Schmoke would be at their student government meeting Wednesday, as well as alumni who are outspoken about the choice.