Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs in protest of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the start of her commencement speech on Wednesday at the historically black institution. DeVos also made headlines earlier this year when she described HBCUs as “real pioneers of school choice”, a statement critics said ignored the historical context in which HBCUs were founded – typically to provide a college education to black students who at the time weren’t allowed into other schools.
In her speech, DeVos praised Bethune-Cookman for providing the means to help its students overcome adversity and serve others.
When DeVos told the audience she planned to visit the home and gravesite of the college’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, a child of slaves who ultimately rose to become an education and civil rights leader, she was again met with a noise of protest from the crowd. “Choose which way you want to go”.
She walked back those comments, saying, “Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs”.
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. Bethune-Cookman students, alumni and activists asked the school to rescind the invitation to DeVos as a result of this, which a petition signed by tens of thousands.
About 60,000 signatures on two petitions were delivered to school officials on Tuesday objecting to her appearance at the university.
Al Jazeera reports students could be heard shouting “Liar!” and “Just go” while DeVos spoke about the importance of conversing and learning from those we disagree.
Before the address, activists lined a sidewalk. When officials at Bethune-Cookman announced they would invite DeVos to give the address, the decision was nearly immediately met with protests.
Over boos and scattered applause, she called on students to give back via personal or public service.
“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. “We need everyone to be a part of this continuation of our institution”.
In a statement afterward, DeVos said she respected the attendees, “including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me”.