Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement speech at historically black Bethune-Cookman University Wednesday amid a cacophony of boos and yells so loud the university president threatened to cut the ceremony short.
“I am here to celebrate you and all of your achievements,” Devos said to the 380 students, about half of whom turned their backs on the speaker. “I’m here to demonstrate, in the most tangible way I know how, that I and the entire administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.”
Students and alumni began voicing their displeasure as soon as DeVos was announced as the Daytona Beach, Florida, school’s commencement speaker, on May 1. The NAACP called for the resignations of the university’s president and board chairman.
“One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore, and experience that which we deem as ‘other,’” school president Edison Jackson wrote in a statement on the day DeVos was announced as the speaker. “When we seek to shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas.”
DeVos, a Republican donor and advocate of school choice, was one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks. She was lambasted for failing to understand a question about student evaluation at a Senate hearing and only narrowly won confirmation.
Then in late February, following a “listening session” with leaders of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), she called the schools “pioneers when it comes to school choice,” that are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
DeVos struck a conciliatory note several times in her speech Wednesday, telling students that the administration supports restoring year-round Pell grants and acknowledging the controversy surrounding her appearance.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and particularly with those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be here,” DeVos said to the students. “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.”
Just four days before DeVos’ speech, Trump indicated in a signing statement concerning a $1.1 trillion government spending bill that he may deem longstanding funding programs for HBCUs and other minority education programs to be unconstitutional.