Leadership & Governance

Why This President Wants Betsy DeVos at His College’s Commencement

September 11, 2017

U. of Baltimore
The U. of Baltimore "is a place where freedom of speech is honored and will be upheld," says President Kurt Schmoke. "And so I believe that if there is any protest that it will be civil and respectful."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was met with jeers and boos during her commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University in May. Dozens of graduates stood from their seats on the floor of the packed arena and turned their backs to her in protest. Many of the graduates and their families were upset that Ms. DeVos was invited to speak on a day when the primary focus should have been on them.

The lingering question for many remained: Why would a university invite her to speak on campus — and moreover, why invite her to commencement?

Last week when the University of Baltimore announced that Ms. DeVos would speak at its fall commencement, in December, similar questions were raised, and tension has already started to mount on campus.

Dozens of students staged a class walkout on Monday that culminated in a rally. Two Maryland gubernatorial candidates also were present, and one of them spoke forcefully against the planned appearance by Ms. DeVos. "Your graduation-day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of your school and highest aspirations of the students," said Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP. "Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public-education secretary of education our country has ever had."

In an email to the campus on Monday morning, Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the public university, explained his decision to invite the secretary to speak at the commencement. He wrote that he expected mixed reactions and that "it is the type of reaction that one would expect to have in a vibrant university community."

Mr. Schmoke, formerly mayor of Baltimore, spoke to The Chronicle about his reasoning for inviting the education secretary — who will not be receiving a speaking fee. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. In your email on Monday, you said you first invited Secretary DeVos in January. Can you walk me through that?

A. I initially reached out to her when I knew she was going to be confirmed as secretary of education. And she, through her staff, accepted, shortly after a February letter. I didn’t make a public statement about her coming until recently because we now have to deal with the logistical issues related to the fall commencement. But I didn’t see any reason to comment on it during the spring semester.

That’s why the debate has surfaced just recently, because I mentioned at our Faculty Senate meeting who our fall commencement speaker we would be.

Q. But in the spring we saw the tumult at Bethune-Cookman. Has that made you wary of what might happen at Baltimore?

A. Not at all. What concerned me more was looking around the country and seeing places where speakers were disinvited because some their views were not acceptable to some on campus and thus invitations were rescinded. I was troubled by that. I think that the University of Baltimore is a place where freedom of speech is honored and will be upheld. And so I believe that if there is any protest that it will be civil and respectful.

Q. As the previous president of Bethune-Cookman was leaving, he said that he should have better conveyed to students and the campus community why the invitation was initially made. How are you are planning to explain this to students?

A. I sent the message out this morning encouraging people to continue to have discussions, and I will be meeting with student government leaders Wednesday. I will be meeting with faculty senates in our four schools over the next month.

And the message that I will be giving them is pretty much the same: At the time that I invited her, her views on elementary and secondary education were fairly well known, but her views on higher education were not. And as I said in my letter to her, this was an opportunity for her to provide comments on higher-education issues. I still believe that to be the case, and I think this would be important.

But secondly, having her at our university is in the best interest of the University of Baltimore because I’m trying to convey to our students the message that they’re graduating into a world in which not everyone agrees with, or has the same point of view on, every public policy issue that is before us.

Q. One of the criticisms that has lingered since her Bethune-Cookman speech is that it could have been at an event other than commencement. Was having Ms. Devos speak at commencement an important point for you?

A. For me — and I’m not trying to equate the two people — but I have tried to use fall commencement as a time to bring people on campus who are public-policy and opinion leaders.

Last year we had Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve. Prior to that, we had a state government official who heads the city delegation to our General Assembly. So, I thought this was an appropriate time to have the secretary come.

And as I said I did not contemplate back in January inviting her to a forum. I felt that commencement, the fall commencement, was an appropriate event for her to deliver a message both of congratulations to the students and to comment on policy issues.

Q. A few people have made a connection between you and Julian Schmoke Jr., Ms. DeVos’s newly appointed enforcement chief. Is the timing of this announcement and his appointment a coincidence?

A. Yeah, I’ve heard that over the last few days. Julian is my first cousin. His father and my father were brothers.

I just learned of Julian’s interest in the Federal Student Aid office this July at our family reunion. So, I didn’t talk to him about my invitation to the secretary. The timing of the announcement about the Federal Student Aid office and this announcement is purely coincidental.

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