Once it was announced that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would be giving the commencement address at Bethune Cookman University, students and community activists quickly rallied in protest.
While the speech went on as planned, it was not without interruption:
In a statement to iOne, Trinice McNally, activist and two-time graduate of Bethune Cookman says “Today, the B-CU Class of 2017 will become alumni of one of the most significant HBCUs in the country. Today, they have the opportunity to inspire positive social change that has historically advanced the rights of many oppressed groups. Today, they will exercise their right and responsibility to fight against injustice overall and (specifically), the insult of Devos speaking at commencement. They have the support of thousands across the country and we have done our best to mobilize them in a way that’s effective and strategic. In the words of one of the greatest freedom fighters of all time (Ella Baker), “Give light and people will find the way.” I believe that today, they will find truly find their way.”
Secretary DeVos has undoubtedly low credibility with the Black community, largely due to her lack of qualifications and contempt for public education. Her attempts to pretend to have any interest in African-American life haven’t been terribly successful. During Black History Month, the Department of Education misspelled the name of author, activist, and forefather of contemporary American sociology W.E.B. Du Bois in a still-present tweet and after an infamous meeting with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, DeVos released a statement characterizing HBCUs are “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
For those of us who did not attend The Betsy DeVos Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, history tells us that HBCUs were founded specifically for African Americans because they had no choice. Aside from being a threat to public education and not knowing the difference between proficiency and growth, this type of ignorance might explain why thousands of alumni from her own alma mater Calvin College opposed her appointment to begin with.
B-CU was founded by educator and activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. President Edison Jackson wrote a rather shocking op-ed titled “Betsy DeVos as Bethune-Cookman speaker: Mary McLeod Bethune would approve” for The Orlando Sentinel. Jackson rationalized the DeVos invite with his 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.”
This type of anti-“safe space” logic is irritating, as this is not an exchange of ideas like a panel or lecture with Q&A afterwards, especially considering that Jackson closes with the trite reminder that “dialogue is a two-way street.” Well, a commencement speech is a one-way street, and nothing about “ideological diversity” dictates that one should listen to the views of another without having the opportunity to respond. Furthermore, a graduation isn’t the time to have that sort of dialogue, is it?
In less conceptual terms, Jackson is asking graduates and community members to do the distressful work of remaining civil while hearing the thoughts of an administration that has no discernible interest in the educational needs of the Black community outside of public spectacles. The rationale of having DeVos speak isn’t intellectually honest or admirable, it just forced B-CU graduates to swallow their “feelings”, smile, and see individuals and institutions that directly or indirectly promote structural anti-Blackness as just “people with opposing views.”
In the Black community, the Trump administration is less popular than a mayonnaise sandwich, and its relationship to HBCUs has been problematic at best. After publicizing meetings with different leaders of HBCUs, President Trump bizarrely stated that key funding for HBCUs may be unconstitutional before walking it back. The presence of a loathed member of a loathed administration at
It remains to be seen how many students and their families will protest the graduation today, but it is safe to say that many of them aren’t trying hear what DeVos is trying to say, or indulge in the political spectacle with someone who can’t even spell “HBCUs” correctly.