Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs to protest Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her commencement speech on May 10
Graduating students booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she spoke here Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement, and many turned their backs to protest her appearance at the historically black school.
The speech was part of the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to reach out to historically black colleges and universities. Many students and alumni had objected to having DeVos as speaker in part because they said that outreach is an empty gesture. But the university president defended her work as a philanthropist and her commitment to education.
The speech attracted national attention at a time of heated debates over academic freedom. At many schools, protests have broken out when students objected to the views of controversial speakers, while others defended their right to voice unpopular views. Some saw the demonstrations against the speech as righteous indignation, while others saw a lack of civility.
Here at Bethune-Cookman, alumni and others delivered petitions this week to administrators with thousands of signatures demanding that DeVos not be allowed to speak. The state’s NAACP chapter called on the university president to resign, and a national teachers’ union amplified the opposition, as well.
On Wednesday, graduates came into the auditorium smiling, many with flowers and other decorations plastered on their mortar boards, and listened to the ceremony politely, until university President Edison Jackson introduced Omarosa Manigault, an adviser to President Trump. Students started booing. Jackson stopped, and said: “You don’t know her. You don’t know her story.”
School leaders at the front of the room and some faculty applauded as he introduced DeVos to give her an honorary doctorate. But many students booed. When she began speaking, thanking Jackson, the room erupted with shouts. DeVos had to raise her voice as she thanked the moms attending the ceremony.
About half of the 380 graduates turned their backs on her.
Many later sat down, but shouts continued as she spoke loudly, saying that one of the hallmarks of higher education and democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom they disagree.