Administration

A Black College Campus Prepares for Betsy DeVos

May 10, 2017

Chronicle Photo by Adam Harris
Tensions have been high at Bethune-Cookman U. as commencement day nears. Some people are questioning why the education secretary, part of an administration that keeps fumbling its message about HBCUs, was chosen to deliver the keynote address.

The day before Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, is slated to speak at Bethune-Cookman University, the campus is quiet. But few expect that calm to carry over to the Ocean Center, the convention center here, where Ms. DeVos will deliver the keynote address during spring commencement on Wednesday.

The university announced the selection of Ms. DeVos as the graduation speaker on May 1. But even before the official announcement, a petition to stop her from speaking was already circulating and had amassed 2,500 signatures (there were nearly 8,000 signatures as of Tuesday evening). The university, however, pressed on.

“Graduation is supposed to be for the students, it's supposed to be uplifting and inspiring. And you're supposed to invite people who inspire the students.”

In its announcement, it stated that, much like Mary McLeod Bethune, the university’s founder, "Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience. Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune."

The comparison did not sit well with critics, many of whom called it an ahistorical reading of Ms. Bethune’s life.

Nizjoni Mclendon, a junior at the university, told The Chronicle that while she understands why Ms. DeVos was invited to speak, she objects to the constant comparison of Ms. DeVos and Ms. Bethune, an educator and activist who has been described as one of the most prominent African-American women of the first half of the 20th century.

Even Ms. Bethune’s granddaughter, Evelyn Bethune, who still lives in Daytona Beach, weighed in — and took exception. "I don’t see any of that in Ms. DeVos," she told The Orlando Sentinel. "I’ve looked at her history, I’ve looked at the things that she has been connected to, and I don’t see any resemblance to anything related to my grandmother."

As the university prepared to hear Ms. DeVos speak, there were rumblings of silent protests from both graduates and people planning to attend the ceremony. Some said they intended to take part in a walkout during the secretary’s speech. Others have planned to turn their backs to Ms. DeVos. And many in the campus community still wonder: Why was she asked to speak in the first place?

For her part, Ms. DeVos has referred to the university, and its founder, in several public speeches since she was confirmed as education secretary. "Since its founding Bethune-Cookman University has served as a flagship institution of higher learning and as a great example of the terrific education HBCUs have historically and continue to provide to students," she said in a statement after she was announced as commencement speaker.

‘No Understanding of HBCUs’

Some critics have pointed to the notion that Ms. DeVos will steal attention away from the graduates who should be celebrated at commencement, while others have cited the very public missteps on the part of the Trump administration on HBCUs.

In February, Ms. DeVos raised hackles when she called black colleges "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," during a meeting between the Trump administration and scores of black college presidents. Those leaders came under criticism from students and others who believed the presidents had been used by President Trump for little more than a photo opportunity. And last week, in his signing statement on the spending bill that will fund the government for the remainder of this budget year, the president suggested that a program that funds construction at historically black colleges might be unconstitutional. The administration quickly worked to walk back both of the remarks.

"She has no understanding of HBCUs," Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Chronicle. Ms. DeVos should not be in front of a group of black students when the Trump administration has shown no measurable care for them, she said. "Graduation is supposed to be for the students, it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring. And you’re supposed to invite people who inspire the students."

TaKarra Brown, a sophomore at Bethune-Cookman, faulted the timing of the invitation, saying the university should not have given Ms. DeVos the platform yet. "I feel like she should know more about us before she comes to speak to us," Ms. Brown said. "I hope this is not the only time that we see her, because if she really wants to learn then she will be here at more than just commencement."

Dozens of Bethune-Cookman’s former student-government leaders, some dating back to the 1980s, sent an open letter to Edison O. Jackson, the university’s president, on Monday to denounce the decision to invite Ms. DeVos. They agreed with Mr. Jackson that she has a right to be heard — and should be — but they did not believe commencement to be the appropriate forum. "The Class of 2017 deserves an experience that is free from negative media scrutiny and controversy," they wrote. "We cannot support any action that will overshadow their day. We implore B-CU to rescind its invitation to Secretary DeVos — perhaps choosing to invite her for more purposeful discourse at a later date."

One advocacy group's leader sees the invitation as an opportunity for Ms. DeVos and the public at large 'to learn more about the rich history of Bethune-Cookman, its talented graduates, and the contributions of all HBCUs.'

Even though some groups have gone as far as to call for the resignations of the university’s president and board chair, some prominent leaders have taken the university’s side.

"Bethune-Cookman University’s decision to invite U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to speak at commencement will give Secretary DeVos, her team, and the American public an opportunity to learn more about the rich history of Bethune-Cookman, its talented graduates, and the contributions of all HBCUs," Michael L. Lomax, the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, said in a statement released on Tuesday. The invitation also offers Ms. DeVos an opportunity "to articulate more fully her views on HBCUs and have an open conversation with our community," he said.

Several students said they were still upset that their voices were not taken into consideration when the decision was made to bring Ms. DeVos in as the commencement speaker.

Jacari Harris, the current student-government president, said in a message to the student body that he understood those frustrations. "Moving forward," he wrote, "graduates will be able to participate in the selection process for the commencement speaker."

Ms. Brown said that, if there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that Ms. DeVos can grow from it and will be encouraged to support HBCUs beyond commencement. "If she wants to learn, she needs to be involved," she said.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.

Correction (5/10/2017, 8:08 a.m.): This article originally misstated Marybeth Gasman's title. She is a professor of higher education, not of education. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.