Students at Bethune-Cookman University’s graduation ceremony protested Betsy Devos’ commencement speech on Wednesday by turning their backs and booing.
For nearly the entire speech, students used their voices to make their disapproval known. During her speech, the U.S. Secretary of Education voiced commitment to HBCU’s and the communities they serve, but under the barrage of boos her statements were hard to decipher.
“Let’s chose to hear each other out,” DeVos said as the crowd roared with disapproval. “I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for HBCU’s and the students they serve. Please know this, we support you and we will continue to support you,” she continued.
Students erupted again when DeVos mentioned she would pay homage to university’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, by visiting her grave site.
At one point University President Edison Jackson took hold of the mic, warning students to settle down. “Choose which way you want to go,” he said as students continued shouting.
For weeks, tensions percolated on campus between officials and students critical of Secretary DeVos and President Trump’s administration’s awkward attempts to reach out, including an Oval Office meeting with selected HBCU presidents.
Students and supporters of Bethune-Cookman, founded by educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, found Jackson’s invitation disheartening. Thousands signed petitions advocating for a new commencement speaker, while others called for Jackson’s resignation.
Most importantly, opponents find it hard to forget the education secretary’s off-mark statement that HBCU’s were pioneers of school choice–void of key historical context regarding the creation of HBCU’s, born out of segregation laws that barred African-Americans from attaining higher-education. This week, Trump back-peddled from a controversial statement where he questioned the constitutionality of funding HBCU’s.
Jackson defended DeVos’ appearance last week in an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel.
“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,” he wrote.
But at Wednesday’s ceremony, Jackson’s call to unite in favor of DeVos went unheard.