Many of the 300 graduates of Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college, turned their backs on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she gave her first commencement address since assuming her post.
BuzzFeed News education reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy tweeted a photo of B-CU graduates with their backs to DeVos during the secretary’s commencement address:
A large number of grads have their backs to DeVos now as she speaks. It's a little hard to hear her words. pic.twitter.com/yVXsqLVJQv
— Molly Hensley-Clancy (@mollyhc) May 10, 2017
Reuters reports that boos and jeers from graduating seniors at the Daytona Beach university were met with a warning from B-CU’s president, Dr. Edison Jackson.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go”:
— Mariana_Atencio (@marianaatencio) May 10, 2017
The NAACP, teachers unions, and other leftist groups agitated the protests against DeVos and circulated an online petition demanding the B-CU administration rescind the invitation to address the graduates. The NAACP called for the resignation of B-CU’s president and board chairman if they did not disinvite DeVos:
— Alliance4EdJustice (@4EdJustice) May 10, 2017
The petition refers to a statement released by DeVos in February, in which she referred to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
“Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created in response to the exclusion of African Americans from mainstream institutions,” says the petition. “Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs”:
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) May 10, 2017
Opponents of the Trump administration also objected to the president’s statement last week in which he said omnibus provisions that distribute federal funds on the basis of race–the HCBU program, for example–would be treated “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”
The B-CU petition also objects to DeVos’s recent withdrawal of protections the Obama administration put in place for students who have mismanaged or are defaulting on their student loans.
Sean P. Jackson, however, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, said DeVos has been a champion for equal education for low-income and minority children.
“The secretary says we should allow charter schools to come in and educate children if they are doing a better job than the public schools,” Jackson said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
In her remarks to B-CU graduates, DeVos said:
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.
DeVos also affirmed the Trump administration’s support for HBCUs:
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.
DeVos addressed comments that, because she comes from a wealthy family, she does not understand the plight of low-income families.
“I also want to acknowledge that we all arrived here today with different life experiences and different perspectives,” the secretary said. “I view that not as a negative, but as a gift.”