DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos vowed support for the students at the at Bethune-Cookman University graduation ceremony May 10, but was nearly drowned out by booing and shouts of “Liar!” Many graduating students turned their back to her in protest.
She began by praising the school’s founder and mission, delivering a plea to avoid the “chorus of conflict” and asking that people listen to those they may instinctively perceive as opponents.
“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” DeVos said, reading her prepared text in a measured tone despite continuing waves of boos, catcalls and only scattered applause.
DeVos alienated many African Americans in February when she described historically Black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” After a storm of criticism, she acknowledged that these colleges were “born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism.”
In her keynote at the Daytona Beach university, DeVos repeatedly praised the school’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, as someone who “refused to accept systemic and repulsive racism,” and had “the courage to change old ideas.”
“I am here to demonstrate in the most direct way possible that I and the administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country,” she said.
As the crowd kept trying to shout her down, university president Edison Jackson briefly took over the microphone to sternly lecture the class of 2017.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,” Jackson warned.
President Donald Trump’s nomination of DeVos, a Republican fundraiser with no classroom experience, was so controversial that Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie-breaking vote for her Senate confirmation.
Some leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities later expressed dismay when Trump invited them to the Oval Office for a “listening session” that became an apparent photo-op for Black History Month.
DeVos has continued since then to cite historically Black colleges as examples of alternative options for quality education, her stated goal for promoting the diversion of tax money from public schools to private companies and charters.
In her speech, DeVos praised Bethune-Cookman for providing the means to help its students overcome adversity and serve others.
“We should aspire to make all of America’s institutions mirror that model – a singular focus on the unique needs of students,” she said.
The booing became an uproar again mid-speech, when DeVos said she would be visiting the grave of the school’s founder.
Shakindra Johnson, a 2008 graduate, said it should have been a proud day for the students and their families, but instead, DeVos seemed to be trying to appropriate the legacy of the school’s founder.
“I think Betsy forgot her name was Betsy and not Mary McLeod Bethune,” she said.
Some alumni and African American leaders called the invitation a misguided effort to secure more funding. Students gathered petitions demanding she not be allowed to speak. Activists gathered outside, one carrying a sign that said “DeVos is not worthy.”
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.”