Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, received an honorary doctorate from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. And she received boos from the students who turned their backs to her as DeVos gave her keynote address at the graduation ceremony. Bethune-Cookman University is a historically black university and there was strong opposition by many students and community members to the secretary’s presence at the graduation.
DeVos began her speech by saying, “I am honored to become a Wildcat,” and the students began raising their voices in a chorus of boos, attempting to drown her out. The president of the university, Edison, Jackson, told the crowd as the disrespectful response increased, “If this behavior continues your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.” Betsy DeVos ignited even more vocal opposition when she introduced the White House communications official, Omarosa Manigault, who was in the audience. President Edison again intervened, “You don’t know her, and nor do you know her story.”
The controversy began when it was announced earlier this month that DeVos would receive the honorary degree and speak at the ceremony. Students criticized the school for selecting her after she downplayed the role of racism in the creation of historically black colleges and universities. Protestors delivered petitions to the school leadership, calling on them to cancel DeVos’ invitation. Students said that they collected 50,000 signatures.
DeVos praised Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” She said in a statement, “They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.” The backlash centered in Devos’ perceived “whitewashing” the history of the institutions. Graduating student, Jasmine Johnson, told the Washington Post, “For someone to come and speak at my commencement that cannot relate to me or know what I have been through is kind of like a slap in the face.”
BCU President Edison Jackson wrote in a letter to the school in the midst of the controversy, “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community,” Jackson wrote. “If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”
DeVos challenged the students in her speech to listen to those with different perspectives: “Spend just a few minutes watching your favorite cable news channel, and you’ll experience the startling polarization happening across the United States. On social media, groups and individuals pit themselves, one against another, not to discuss the merits of deeply help beliefs, but to see who can yell the loudest, score the quickest political points or best silence the other’s voice. The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mindset of grace. We must first listen and then speak with humility to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree.”
What do you think about how the Secretary of Education was received? Should the university have canceled her appearance?
Credit: Huffington Post