by Itunuoluwa Adebo
Graduating students at the Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs in protest of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the beginning of her commencement speech on Wednesday.
The boos and jeers could be heard when DeVos, who drew attention in February when she said historically black colleges were “pioneers” of educational choice was introduced. Faculty and school administrators on stage stood and applauded. “One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” DeVos told the graduates.
In a live video of the ceremony, many graduates were seen facing away from DeVos, though how many of them participated in the silent protest was unclear. The president of the University, Edison Jackson, interrupted her speech with a warning to students. “If this behaviour continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”
Ahead of the speech, students, alumni and political activists sought to have DeVos’ invitation rescinded, saying they were offended by her earlier comment. DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice – including charter schools and school vouchers – later clarified her remark, noting that historically black colleges were created because other institutions were not open to African-Americans.
About 60,000 signatures on two petitions were delivered to school officials on Tuesday objecting to her appearance at the university. “Right now is not the time for Secretary DeVos to speak at any historically black college,” said Dominik Whitehead, a Bethune-Cookman alumnus who led one of the petition drives. DeVos’ statement, he said, “just shows she is out of touch.”
In a statement on Sunday, President Donald Trump said DeVos chose Bethune-Cookman for her first commencement address as education secretary to show the Republican administration’s dedication to the mission of historically black colleges and universities.