Controversy Over DeVos Commencement Speech

May 4, 2017

Just months after a major gaffe by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the origins of historically black colleges and universities, a Florida HBCU is taking heat for inviting her to speak at its spring commencement ceremony next week.

The Florida chapter of the NAACP asked Bethune-Cookman University this week to reconsider the invitation and to withhold an honorary degree for DeVos. The Florida Education Association circulated a petition Wednesday calling for the university to rescind the invitation.

Fedrick Ingram, vice president of the association, said the organization's objection to DeVos had less to do with her past missteps on issues involving HBCUs than her association with a proposed White House budget that would deal major cuts to programs supporting the students who attend institutions like Bethune-Cookman.

“This is not about what she believes, it’s not about the history -- this is about what she says she will do going forward,” Ingram said.

Liz Hill, press secretary for the Department of Education, said DeVos was honored to receive an invitation to speak at the university.

"She believes that open dialogue and a willingness to work together are key to solving our nation’s most pressing issues, and she looks forward to continued dialogue with the HBCU community and the Bethune-Cookman students, faculty and staff," Hill said.

A spokeswoman for Bethune-Cookman did not respond to a request for comment but said the university would hold a press conference ahead of the commencement ceremony May 10. Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson earlier this week defended the decision to invite DeVos in Politico.

“When we seek to shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas,” Jackson said. “Additionally, the sheer diversity of our human family requires us to listen to and understand one another. We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social and racial silos.”

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