Betsy DeVos was met with raucous boos as she reached the lectern to deliver her commencement remarks at
Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) on Wednesday.
For nearly the entire time she spoke, she was booed, shouted at, and met with calls of “Go home!” from students and audience members.
About two minutes into her address, the president of BCU, Dr. Edison Jackson, stopped DeVos’ speech to address the students disrupting her speech.
Jackson said degrees would be mailed to students if their behaviour continued. “Choose which way you want to go,” he said.
DeVos began her speech again, but the threat went unheeded as boos picked up again. DeVos powered on, sticking to prepared remarks. She addressed some of the opposition to her speaking at the historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, asking for those critical of her to hear her out, and voicing her support for HBCUs.
“We support you and we will continue to support you,” she said.
The weeks leading up to her speech were marked with vocal opposition by students at the school, civil rights organisations, and Florida education groups, who claimed she has no understanding of the history and significance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
On Tuesday, petitions were delivered to university leaders urging college leaders to disinvite DeVos from attending the commencement ceremony. “Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs,” a petition signed by more than 8,000 people on change.org read.
Both DeVos and the Trump Administration have endeavoured to engage historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in conversations about higher education, meeting with HBCU leaders and voicing support for their contributions.
But their efforts have been marked with gaffes and uncertainty about the administration’s plans to help better serve their institutions.
In February, DeVos ignited controversy with a statement linking school choice and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos had said in a statement after she met with leaders of HBCUs. She implied that HBCUs and school vouchers, of which DeVos is a fierce supporter, similarly afford better options to students. “[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.”
She failed to acknowledge that many HBCUs were created because black students could not attend white segregated schools. They were, in other words, not providing better options, but the only options for these students. She later issued a series of tweets clarifying the racist history that necessitated the emergence of HBCUs.
And in a statement last week, President Trump seemed to indicate that key funding for HBCUs might be unconstitutional and therefore scrapped. Experts saw his comments as a signal that certain funding for HBCUs was at risk. He later pledged his “unwavering support” for the schools.
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