Taking a Stand: DeVos heckled at Bethune-Cookman University graduation

TERRANCE HARRIS | 5/22/2017, 9:31 a.m.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos vowed support for the students at the at Bethune-Cookman University graduation ceremony May 10, but was ...
A group of students stand and turn their backs during a commencement exercise speech by United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman University, May 10, in Daytona Beach, Florida. John Raoux

Jackson gave DeVos a hug after her speech, then took the podium when she left the stage.

“As we have said repeatedly, be careful of the people you let in your place,” Jackson said, seeming to acknowledge the criticism and drawing an eruption of laughter. But he said “Bethune-Cookman University can’t do it alone. We need everyone to be a part of this continuation of our institution.”

Some students agreed, saying the school needs help from anyone offering it, no matter their party affiliation.

“DeVos was here to hear our differences and at the end of the day I think that’s what happened,” added Keith Holt, who received a master’s degree in transformative leadership.

In a statement afterward, DeVos said she respected the attendees, “including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs.”

Afterward, Texas Southern University, a Houston HBCU, announced its retraction for Sen. John Cornyn to give the commencement speech during its graduation ceremony.

TSU students had circulated a petition demanding the Texas senator be withdrawn as a commencement speaker, citing various stances he has taken. These included his confirmation votes in favor of DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his opposition to funding for so-called sanctuary cities that protect immigrants and his support for photo IDs for voting. The petition also cited Cornyn’s low rating by the NAACP.

“Having a politician such as him speak at our institution is an insult to the students, to TSU, and to all [HBCUs],’’ said the petition on the change.org site. “This is our graduation. We have the right to decide if we want to refuse to sit and listen to the words of a politician who chooses to use his political power in ways that continually harm marginalized and oppressed people.”

The university released a statement saying that, “Every consideration is made to ensure that our students’ graduation day is a celebratory occasion and one they will remember positively for years to come. We asked Sen. Cornyn to instead visit with our students again at a future date in order to keep the focus on graduates and their families. We, along with Sen. Cornyn, agree that the primary focus of commencement should be a celebration of academic achievement.”