Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has faced unrelenting backlash from students and alumni of Bethune-Cookman University ever since she was announced as the school’s commencement speaker, and it reached a fever pitch Wednesday.
DeVos was met with incessant booing throughout her entire graduation address at Bethune-Cookman, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Roughly two minutes into DeVos’ speech, the unruly protests became so noisy that Edison Jackson, the college’s president, stepped in and threatened to cancel the commencement ceremony and mail students their diplomas if they didn’t compose themselves.
“Choose which way you want to go,” he said sternly before stepping back as yet another wave of boos washed through the arena.
Despite Jackson’s ultimatum, the protesting continued. At some points, it was nearly impossible to hear the secretary over the shouting and some students chose to stand with their backs to DeVos for the entirety of her speech.
Some even protested on the sidewalks outside the commencement arena, according to a BuzzFeed News report. The Rev. Jeffrey Dove, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor who called on Jackson to rescind his invitation to DeVos, carried a sign reading, “No Justice, No Peace.”
“I don’t hate Betsy DeVos, but the fruit from the poison tree is poisonous. Donald Trump is a racist and a sexist, and my job as a preacher is to speak up against that,” he told the website. “There’s no problem with a dialogue, but this is not a dialogue — it’s a monologue.”
Nevertheless, DeVos soldiered on, delivering her prepared remarks over the cacophony of jeers, boos, and screams. She said she was “grateful” for the opportunity to address the graduating class at Bethune-Cookman, “in particular those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be here.”
“One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy” she said, “is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.”
That comment, though, didn’t seem to spark any spirit of bipartisanship — or decorum.
DeVos has struggled to secure support among the leaders of historically black colleges and universities since February, when she triggered outrage with a statement calling HBCUs “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
She said HBCUs “are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
The Education Department chief, who is a staunch advocate for school vouchers, seemed to brush over the fact that HBCUs were established because black students were not permitted to attend white, segregated schools. So black students didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
At the time, DeVos took to Twitter to clarify her previous remarks.
#HBCUs are such an important piece of the fabric of American history—one that encompasses some of our nation's greatest citizens.— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@Secretary Betsy DeVos)1488307522.0
Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of #HBCUs.— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@Secretary Betsy DeVos)1488307952.0
But your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@Secretary Betsy DeVos)1488307971.0
#HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many.— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@Secretary Betsy DeVos)1488308067.0
We need more good schools. We need more good teachers. And no child should be denied the opportunity to enter a great school. Not one.— Secretary Betsy DeVos (@Secretary Betsy DeVos)1488308088.0
An Education Department staffer, speaking anonymously, told BuzzFeed that DeVos “remains committed to HBCUs” and “delivered a message based on the legacy of Bethune, which celebrates civil discourse — she welcomed students who were there to support her and those who opposed her.”
DeVos drew perhaps the loudest boos when she told the students of her plans to visit the gravesite of Mary McLeod Bethune, the school’s founder and a civil rights and education pioneer who is lauded by the 3,600-student campus.
While many HBCU leaders were happy with President Donald Trump’s administration following an Oval Office meeting with the leader in February, some were concerned following a statement from the White House earlier this month seeming to indicate federal HBCU funding is counter to the Constitution.
In a follow-up statement, Trump clarified the previous announcement, pledging “unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”