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Overture to HBCUs Rejected

First commencement address no cake walk for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as Bethune-Cookman students jeer and turn their backs on her remarks.

May 11, 2017
 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

If Betsy DeVos’s appearance at Bethune-Cookman University, a private historically black institution, was intended to cement the Trump administration's outreach to HBCUs, it appeared to be a flop.

Boos and jeers from graduating students accompanied DeVos's remarks throughout her commencement address. Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson even interrupted at one point to warn students, "If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you."

The booing continued and DeVos raised her voice to continue her remarks while some students stood and turned their backs and others walked out with fists raised, according to reports from the commencement. Video showed administrators behind DeVos, clearly uncomfortable, conferring about what to do about the boos. DeVos generally spoke above the crowd and could be heard on audio of the event.

Although DeVos appeared at the graduation ceremony at the invitation of Jackson and the Bethune-Cookman board, it was the latest uncomfortable chapter in a relationship between the secretary and black institutions that has been rocky from the beginning.

Her involvement in education before becoming secretary consisted of advocating for and financially supporting school choice initiatives. In one of her first meetings with HBCU leaders in February (and later in a statement released through the department), DeVos said that historically black colleges were "pioneers of school choice" -- a phrase that critics said ignored their origins in a Jim Crow system that excluded black college students entirely.

While the administration has sought to make up for that misstep, it clearly still rankles HBCU advocates and their students. And the "skinny budget" released by the Trump administration last month, although promising to maintain dedicated funding for HBCUs, proposed serious cuts to financial aid and college readiness programs that benefit many of their students and disproportionately help black students at a range of institutions.

In the latest stumble for the administration, President Trump last week issued a signing statement on funding legislation that suggested a key aid program for black colleges was unconstitutional. That statement angered advocates for HBCUs, and both the White House and Department of Education issued statements over the weekend clarifying their support for those institutions.

The secretary in her speech Wednesday acknowledged expectations of hostility but attempted to strike a conciliatory note.

"While we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out," she said. "I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve. Please know this: we support you, and we will continue to support you."

DeVos said that is one reason why the administration backs the restoration of year-round Pell Grants -- a policy change that congressional lawmakers already agreed to last week when they reached a deal on an omnibus funding package for the rest of fiscal year 2017.

John Silvanus Wilson, until March the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, was in the room when DeVos made her comments about HBCUs exemplifying school choice. Afterward, he encouraged Morehouse students to take the high road and give the new secretary "a chance to get the job right."

"But rather than see the Bethune-Cookman community's reaction as 'low road,' I think it probably relates less to any abiding disquiet with Secretary DeVos than to the larger sense of disjuncture and distaste many have with the expressed and practiced values of the overall Trump administration," Wilson said.

He said that going forward the Trump administration could have a material effect on how it is received at historically black colleges and among their supporters by making good on the promise to provide "historic" levels of funding to those institutions.

"More than anything else, that will send a profoundly clear message about what he values," Wilson said. "Mr. Trump boosted our investment in the U.S. military out of a concern for our national safety and security, and he can and should invest in HBCUs similarly and with the same rationale."

In the week leading up to the commencement, the decision to invite DeVos to speak at Bethune-Cookman came under heavy criticism from students, alumni and teachers' groups. The Florida Education Association, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, circulated a petition calling for the university to rescind the invitation.

But Jackson, Bethune-Cookman's president, said the secretary's appearance would be an opportunity to advocate for the university and HBCUs. And he said that graduating students should not be shielded from those with different points of view.

Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said university leaders have the right to invite whomever they want to speak on campus, just as students have the right to protest.

"People have a right to protest and say, 'This is our graduation and we want it to be affirming and uplifting. And we want someone who embraces education and embraces African-American education,'" Gasman said. "The other thing I would say is that anybody who thinks kowtowing to these folks is going to get them anything is crazy."

Upbeat Reaction From DeVos

On Wednesday evening, DeVos issued a statement offering an upbeat assessment of the day.

"One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree," she said. "I have respect for all those who attended, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs."

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