Government

Boos and Protests Mark Betsy DeVos’s Speech at Bethune-Cookman

May 11, 2017

John Raoux, AP Images
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stepped aside at one point during her commencement address at Bethune-Cookman U. while the university's president, Edison O. Jackson, admonished the hecklers who repeatedly disrupted her speech.

Edison O. Jackson, the president of Bethune-Cookman University, approached the lectern at the event center here on Wednesday — standing in front of soon-to-be-graduates and more than 3,000 of their family members, friends, and supporters, at the opening of the university’s spring commencement ceremony. “Turn and face forward,” he said. The students turned in step.

What followed was less uniform.

“We worked too hard for this. It's not even about her.”

A wave of anticipation had been building in the campus community and across the country in the days leading up to the historically black college’s graduation ceremony. The reason: Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, would be delivering the commencement address.

The atmosphere on Wednesday as Ms. DeVos delivered her speech is indicative of a greater issue the Trump administration faces, as many believe it has strained its credibility with historically black colleges and universities by publicly reaching out to them, building their expectations, then following up with little action, or with statements that seem to step in the opposite direction.

Its public fumbles include Ms. DeVos’s referring to HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and President Trump’s recent suggestion that a decades-old federal funding program that aids construction on black college campuses might be unconstitutional.

Such missteps, coupled with the lack of tangible evidence that the administration is actively working to help black colleges financially, have fostered skepticism and ire from students, faculty, and supporters of HBCUs. And it all came to a head on Wednesday.

Jeers and Warnings

In the days leading up to commencement, speculation swelled about protests both before and during the ceremony. As the day arrived, dozens of protesters lined the main drag outside of the Ocean Center here, the fifth-largest convention center in Florida, and several small factions of protesters gathered at various points around the building. They held signs that read “No to DeVos,” and had messages for the administration to protect the legacy of the university’s namesake and founder, Mary McLeod Bethune.

The protests outside, however, were just the beginning.

After the graduating students and faculty members filed into the convention center and took their seats, Mr. Jackson thanked the guests in attendance. He mentioned Omarosa Manigault, a senior adviser to President Trump, and was met with loud boos from the audience. He was again booed when he thanked Ms. DeVos. “You don’t know her,” Mr. Jackson said. “Nor do you know her story.”

The university conferred honorary degrees on two people on Wednesday, Ms. DeVos and Derrick L. Henry, the mayor of Daytona Beach. Mr. Henry, who is the second black mayor of the city, was awarded his honorary doctorate first. In his acceptance remarks, he reminded the graduates that the day was about them. “Today,” he told them, “you are a model of possibility for others.” But once he took his seat, the events began to spiral.

Ms. DeVos was booed when she was presented as a candidate for the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. She was booed again when it was awarded. There was a break in the jeers for a prayer from Mr. Jackson and musical selection from the university’s symphonic band, but the booing resumed when Ms. DeVos stood to deliver her speech.

As she greeted the candidates, many of them stood and turned their backs.

Several students sat down after a minute, but the group as a whole was admonished by Mr. Jackson, who interrupted Ms. DeVos less than five minutes into her speech. “If this behavior continues,” he told them, “your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.” Many in the group immediately rose back to their feet, joining their fellow students.

“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”

Mr. Jackson eventually took his seat again and the audience erupted in applause, as the protesters among the graduating students had won a small victory. That applause quickly turned into booing again as Ms. DeVos continued her speech.

"I want to acknowledge that we arrived here with different life experiences," she said, as several sections of the arena began chanting "hell nah." There were again cheers when a handful of students in the audience walked out with fists raised in a black-power salute.

The heckling continued, dispersed throughout the remainder of Ms. Devos’s remarks, but as the speech rounded to a close, students returned to their seats, the audience settled, and it was as if nothing had happened. Betsy DeVos's first commencement address as education secretary had come and gone.

The graduation resumed and families were able to enjoy to celebrate the reason they traveled so many miles: the soon-to-be graduates.

But many were left wondering: Was it worth it?

Why This Occasion?

The invitation to Ms. DeVos came about after she and the university’s president met during a February summit between the Trump administration and black college leaders, Mr. Jackson said during a news conference on Wednesday. They wanted to get together to find a time for Ms. DeVos to visit the campus and speak with the students.

“We are always about the business of making new friends, and if you don’t have friends, it’s difficult to raise money,” Mr. Jackson told reporters.

“Can you imagine how many institutions would love to have the secretary of education, the highest education officer in the land, be at their commencement and hopefully open new doors for this institution?” he said. “We can disagree rather than be disagreeable.”

“Can you imagine how many institutions would love to have the secretary of education, the highest education officer in the land, be at their commencement and hopefully open new doors for this institution?”

Joe Petrock, the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, sounded a similar note. “I have a dream that we’re going to build new partnerships and relationships,” he said, adding that he hopes to use those relationships to bring in new funding. “What a great day,” he said, “to have the secretary of education come down to Daytona Beach, Florida, to talk about education. We have a chance to share our thoughts, our ideas, and our concerns, about building a better education system.”

But if Ms. DeVos’s invitation was simply a play for funding, alumni hope they can eliminate — or at least substantially reduce — that need, said Jasmine Burney-Clark, a 2009 graduate of the university who was among the protesters outside the Ocean Center. They plan to create fund-raising campaigns that will help the institution so that it doesn’t have to “barter with the federal government the students’ prized moment for funding,” she said.

University officials dodged one of the questions that troubled many in the campus community: Why choose commencement for Ms. DeVos to speak? Why not invite her to speak on another occasion?

The university has not said who ultimately made the decision to invite the secretary (the decision did require the board to confirm it), but it drastically changed the atmosphere of the day, said Ms. Burney-Clark. “They’ve politicized the entire graduation and turned it into their show,” she said, “not the show that the students have worked four years for and paid an extremely high tuition for.”

For their part, the graduates knew the stakes and were not fazed — all eyes were on them and they protested to make a point. More important, however, they graduated.

“We worked too hard for this,” one graduate said. “It’s not even about her.”

A Campus Unchanged

Back on campus after the ceremony, calm once again took hold. Graduates were taking photos and sitting with their families on the benches near trees. Some students were gathering the last of their things from the dormitories.

Ms. DeVos was here as well, but without fanfare. Her motorcade sneaked onto campus for a brief visit to Mary McLeod Bethune’s house and gravesite, where the secretary laid a wreath. During her speech, a mention of her plan to visit these memorials to the university’s founder drew the heaviest ire of the crowd. But, in an instant, it seemed, Ms. DeVos concluded her visit and left — and the campus was unchanged.

Just as the university was before Betsy DeVos came, it will be when she leaves — a fact that Mr. Jackson, the university’s president, alluded to during Wednesday’s news conference.

Bethune-Cookman will still face the same problems it has historically faced, he said. But he hopes that a new friend in Ms. DeVos will help move it forward. The university remains “committed to doing the things that will make a difference in our community,” he said.

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