Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave her first commencement speech Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Florida. The Washington Post reports the students there were, to say the least, not happy with the choice of keynote speaker. Many of them loudly booed DeVos and a number of them even turned their backs as she spoke.
As soon as DeVos began to speak, thanking President Edison Jackson, the Post says the room "erupted with shouts.” This shouting and booing didn’t let up as DeVos continued to speak, which required her to shout the rest of her speech into the microphone. “I am at the table fighting on your behalf,” she said, but it was obvious the students didn’t believe that for a moment, given the past and current actions of the Trump administration. Toward the end of her speech, she said she would be visiting the gravesite of Mary McLeod Bethune, the school’s founder and civil rights activist. This drew some of the strongest protest of her visit, with clear shouts of “No!” ringing through the crowd, the Post reports.
The atmosphere at the commencement ceremony shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone, given the heightened tensions on campus from the moment DeVos was announced as the keynote speaker. Thousands signed petitions demanding DeVos be dropped as a speaker. One graduating student, Jasmine Johnson, described her reaction to the Post as pure shock. “For someone to come and speak at my commencement that cannot relate to me or know what I have been through is kind of like a slap in the face,” she said.
In February, DeVos called HBCUs "pioneers of school choice," offending many because she made it sound like black people made the choice to start these schools, rather than being forced to start their own colleges due to racism and segregation.
Jackson, the president of the university, remained steadfast in the university’s choice to bring in DeVos as the keynote speaker. Interacting with people with different viewpoints is, in his opinion, the best way to make sure students are “equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”
This all comes at a time that President Donald Trump has made some really confusing statements about HBCUs. On Friday, he said a key funding source for these universities might be unconstitutional. Sunday, he said he has “unwavering support” for historically black colleges.
Confusing statements and appearances seem to be the status quo for Trump, DeVos and the rest of the administration.