Betsy DeVos received a rude welcome yesterday by soon-to-be graduates at Bethune-Cookman University during her first commencement address as Secretary of Education.
Bethune-Cookman, a private historically black university located in Daytona Beach, FL, invited the new education head to deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2017.
Unfortunately, Secretary DeVos was greeted at the opening of her remarks by groups of students standing and turning their backs to her. Then at times, she was heckled, jeered, and her speech drowned out by chanting. When was also roundly booed when receiving an honorary degree.
DeVos was prepared and responded:
“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree. And while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.”
Apparently, that made the crowd erupt causing the school’s president, Edison O. Jackson, to pause the secretary’s address to give the students a sharp waring:
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go."
Some students reportedly sat down, but one eventually was escorted out.
In her speech DeVos iterated her support for HBCUs and highlighted the stories of young blacks who triumphed over hardship and whose educations will be transformational for themselves and their families. Like many commencement addresses DeVos also encouraged the students to embrace service in the next phase of their lives.
Since the school announced DeVos as commencement speaker, there has been sharp public opposition culminating in an alumnus gathering 60,000 petition signatures asking the university to stop her speech. Although reportedly, according to a university officials, only 6,000 of the petitions were properly filled out and of those the majority came from outside the campus and Daytona Beach area.
The school’s president defended the invitation on the grounds that students benefit from hearing from those with opposing views and ideals:
"If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship," he said in a statement.
Speaking of outsiders interjecting their voices and stirring the pot, the NAACP was quick to come out against DeVos. The organization’s president Cornell Brooks told CNN:
"The students booing and some cheering is a reflection of their concern about the policies of the department of education. So let's be clear about this, the issue here is not the civility of the students but rather the policy of the secretary."
Brooks emphasized students were exercising "their First Amendment right to boo."
Students have First Amendment rights, but there is a point where disruptive behavior has to be addressed.
Kudos to President Jackson for inviting the Secretary of Education. She could have delivered her first commencement address to any of the tens of thousands of universities – many with far more money and name recognition. Her presence alone had the potential to boost ethune-Cookman’s visibility nationally and make statement about the Department of Education’s commitment to HBCUs (though maybe the students turned it into a chance to deliver the wrong message). Historically black colleges and universities have a special history as the only sources of higher education for blacks during the dark period of our nation’s history of segregation.
Second, disruptive behavior should not be tolerated. President Jackson was right to make it clear that if disruptors didn’t stop they would get their degrees in the mail. However, that warning would be executed, it would mean that some students would miss out on the specialness of the moment when their name is called and family and friends get to celebrate the hard work, sacrifice, and effort that led to receiving their diploma. It’s not time to be divisive and political, or allow outsiders with an agenda to push a narrative.
Students need to recognize that part of freedom of speaking is freedom of thought. If there’s one lesson they should have learned in all their four years is that intellectual curiosity requires openness to different perspectives.