Another HBCU Commencement Debate

Texas Southern withdraws invitation to Senator John Cornyn, as students and faculty members ask why black colleges invite politicians with records they think go against their interests.

May 15, 2017
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Senator John Cornyn

Texas Southern University on Friday withdrew its invitation to U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to speak at this year's commencement.

The university acted amid student anger that the invitation had been extended, with some saying they would protest during commencement if he spoke. The news came just days after many in the graduating class at Bethune-Cookman University -- like Texas Southern a historically black institution -- booed, jeered and turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she spoke during the commencement ceremony.

The office of Senator Cornyn, a key member of the Senate Republican leadership, released a statement saying, "Senator Cornyn was honored to be invited to address TSU’s graduates, but he respects the administration's decision and looks forward to continuing to engage with the university in the future."

While Cornyn isn't making a big deal of the situation, others are. To some, the student activism at Texas Southern and Bethune-Cookman is the latest sign that students are unwilling to listen to people with differing views. But to others, who note the role of commencement addresses in saluting graduates and their families, the invitations to DeVos and Cornyn suggest that some black college leaders are out of touch with their own students, and that the strategy of currying favor with Republicans is angering many on campuses.

Texas Southern's statement, posted to its Facebook page, said in part, "Every consideration is made to ensure that our students’ graduation day is a celebratory occasion and one they will remember positively for years to come. We asked Senator Cornyn to instead visit with our students again at a future date in order to keep the focus on graduates and their families. We, along with Senator Cornyn, agree that the primary focus of commencement should be a celebration of academic achievement."

The university's Facebook page quickly had posts from some at Texas Southern praising the decision and many comments from people without apparent connections to the university criticizing the decision. Typical comments included: "Once again the thugs act up and behave badly and the college caves" and "Go ahead, don't invite someone who disagrees with you. Continue living in your echo chamber and swimming in ignorance."

The students at Bethune-Cookman also have been criticized. The Augusta Chronicle ran an editorial calling the protest there "an ominous insult," and the boos for DeVos "a debasement" of the values of the university. A Fox News column called the students "petulant crybabies, spoiled brats -- pitching a hissy fit."

The opposition to Cornyn serving as commencement speaker at Texas Southern is described in a petition signed by students, alumni and others. The petition notes Cornyn's votes to confirm DeVos, to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and in favor of measures to require photo identification cards to vote in elections (a measure viewed by many as designed to suppress black voting).

And the petition notes that Cornyn joined with other Republican senators in 2010, during the confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, in attacking the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Cornyn said at the time that Marshall had a "judicial philosophy that concerns me." Many court watchers said Republican's focused criticism of Marshall was odd, given that it was Kagan whose nomination was under review, and that Marshall had been dead for 17 years. The Republicans said the comments were relevant because Kagan had been a clerk for Marshall and praised him.

But to many black observers in particular, the comments were offensive. Marshall is a hero to many, especially in black America, for his fight against segregation. And as students at Texas Southern have noted, Marshall had very specific ties to that university. He was part of the legal team that led to the 1950 Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter, in which the court rejected the idea that a law school hastily created by the state of Texas at what is now known as Texas Southern was equal to that of the University of Texas at Austin, which had rejected a black applicant based solely on his race. The ruling was a key step toward Brown v. Board of Education, which took a more decisive stand against segregation. And while the case didn't lead Texas to provide meaningful resources for the new law school created for black students, that law school has grown considerably -- and is named for Marshall, whose "judicial philosophy" concerned Cornyn.

‘The Speaker You Never Should Have Had’

As the Bethune-Cookman students were criticized after their protest, more than 200 black faculty members (at historically black and predominantly white institutions alike) organized a joint letter backing the protest and saying that the real problem was the invitation to DeVos.

"The world watched you protest the speaker you never should have had," the letter said. "We cheered as we saw so many of you refuse to acquiesce in the face of threats and calls for complicity. Your actions fit within a long tradition of black people fighting back against those who attack our institutions and our very lives with their anti-black policies and anglo-normative practices. Betsy DeVos’s commitment to dismantling public education and her egregious framing of historically black colleges and universities as 'pioneers' in school choice are just two examples of why she should never have been invited to speak at an event celebrating black excellence. We shared your outrage when it was announced that DeVos would serve as your commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree. As your administration hid behind the rhetoric of 'learning from people with divergent perspectives,' current students objected. Alumni petitioned. We watched from a distance wondering how but knowing why this moment was taken from honoring you."

The strategy of promoting close ties to Republican politicians is not a new one for some leaders of historically black colleges. Indeed, prior to the civil rights era, many advocates for HBCUs turned to Republicans. And defenders of the invitations to DeVos and Cornyn have cited the political power of Republicans, and suggested that protests will hurt black colleges.

But since the civil rights era, many students at black colleges have rejected that approach, especially when dealing with politicians who they believe have acted against black interests.

In 1989, Howard University appointed Lee Atwater, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, to its board. Atwater had just managed the successful campaign of President George H. W. Bush, who along with family members had decades of involvement with supporting the UNCF. But to Howard students, Atwater was responsible for what they saw as a racist campaign featuring the notorious Willie Horton ads. Students took over Howard's administration building for five days. With tensions escalating, Atwater stepped down from the board, saying that he did not want to risk violence at the university. Shortly after that, James Cheek, who had been president of Howard for 20 years, and who had advocated close ties to Republican politicians, stepped down as well.

And when President Bush spoke at Hampton University's commencement in 1991, many students engaged in silent protest, saying they were questioning his policies on civil rights issues.


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