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Read the Room: Betsy DeVos was Booed at Commencement

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is absolutely no stranger to criticism. But as she delivered her commencement speech to a packed room of graduates and families at Bethune-Cookman University, a Florida HBCU, criticism became a powerful reminder of the tensions between black students and the current White House administration.

According to a report from Newsweek, graduates and attendees were openly dissatisfied  — regularly standing with backs turned and shouting “Go Home!” while DeVos was booed. As the university president, Edison O. Jackson, waved his finger at the protesting students, threatening to send their diplomas by mail, the voices only got louder.  This reaction to DeVos as a commencement speaker isn’t unwarranted. Earlier this year DeVos decided to play politics, skewing the history of HBCU’s by referring to them as the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”. 

A few days ago, the Trump administration made more enemies on HBCU campuses by suggesting that funding These Historically Black Colleges and a Universities might be unconstitutional. Once the backlash began, the Trump administration quickly followed the statement up with a pledge of “unwavering support”.

The current Trump administration was born on thin ice, especially with people of color and it appears the HBCU community writ large is taking every opportunity to let their voices be heard.  There’s little patience and even less tolerance for any insensitive statements or any hint of the administration failing to follow through on Trump’s promise to protect and support HBCU’s.

The discontent at Bethune-Cookmanan isn’t just about DeVos. It’s a reaction to an exacerbated distortion of the shifting power dynamics on university campuses. According to a report by the Huffington Post, 50,000 people signed a petition circulated by the Color of Change and Florida Education Association to protest DeVos’ commencement address.

The real question is ‘how did the university’s administration ignore that kind of public sentiment?’ Since the DeVos speech was announced, the stream of objections has been steady and unwavering. Coupling that with a somewhat tangible manifestation of dissent in the form of a petition, what was to be achieved by allowing DeVos to speak at commencement? The fact that the university president wasted his breath by attempting to bully the graduates, admonishing them for drowning out DeVos, was probably evidence of the same approach he had to the petition.  He wasn’t reading the room.

The dynamic of power on university campuses with the current free speech debate is exposing the way college administrations often lean on the side of radical tolerance rather than on the side of any type of visceral protest. Bethune Cookman’s president seemed to prefer that the students exercise some form of restraint and “decorum” in the face of the Secretary of Education, who represents an administration that a large number of the graduates probably view as —at a bare minimum— casually racist. Why is that?

The choices made by institutions of higher learning, just like the choices of our elected officials, should represent the desires of the populations they serve, no? If students can’t have a voice in the selection of their commencement speaker then the administration must be open to them exercising their voices and registering their opposition when the time comes. Most times students don’t care who the commence speaker is and sometimes the politics of the day make them really pay attention.  

If any college administration doesn’t understand that, then they must be content being aggressively ineffective. What is the point of the ulterior political posturing towards emotional restraint or wanton adherence to a status quo that supports absolute cordiality when presented with an extension of the White House who was willing to distort the very premise behind the school’s founding? Why did the administration expect any less from the Class of 2017 at Bethune Cookman?

Central to the HBCU as a concept, is the student’s fundamental understanding of the political significance built into their space. How the leadership of any university — where knowledge is supposed to be paramount— let alone an HBCU (where knowledge is paramount as well as a response to oppression) couldn’t respect that, is almost beyond reason. But it’s over, and the fight’s just gonna continue. How can it not? A few hundred miles to the south of Bethune-Cookman, at another Florida HBCU, Florida Memorial University, dissent will take another form, as Trayvon Martin will be posthumously awarded a baccalaureate degree in Aeronautical Science.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow him on Twitter @razrobinson.

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