I Understand and Support the Students at Bethune-Cookman University who Booed Betsy DeVos

So let me first start by saying that I am in full support of the reaction from the 2017 graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University for using their voices in the only way that received an immediate reaction, no matter how unfavorable it may have been.

School President Edison Jackson felt differently and actually interrupted DeVos’ speech to admonish his students by saying, “

If this…behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.  Choose which way you wanna go.”

According to reports, when it was announced that Betsy Devos would be delivering the keynote address during the commencement ceremony, petitions and protests immediately began to uninvite the U.S. Education Secretary from making the appearance.

Edison released the following statement on the university’s website:

Perhaps Secretary DeVos, much like those early initial skeptics that Dr. Bethune invited to visit and speak on this campus, will be inspired by the profound work that occurs here with our students.  At the end of the day, it really is all about the success of our students, and if there are opportunities to possibly influence their success, then we must seize upon them.

Despite his attempts to justify and compare his efforts to those of the school’s founder by engaging with individuals who demonstrate they aren’t vested in the same concerns and needs as those who have been affected by social injustice, his words did not satisfy or pacify any feelings of outrage or disappointment.

Ops-ed writer Alice B. Lloyd wrote,

Critics contended the secretary of education’s support for school choice and student loan deregulation puts her at odds with the school’s beloved namesake: educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune famously founded a girls’ school—that would become a women’s college, and then a co-ed school—from humble beginnings with just five students, piddling funds, and a brave vision.

If you’re uncertain as to why there would be such an immense opposition to the Education  Secretary’s appearance at the graduation ceremony, writers with U.S. News and World Report capture the lackluster employment resume that precedes Devos’ nabbing of the prestigious position within the presidential administration by expressing,

Thanks to Republican efforts to rush the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Secretary of Education, far too little is known about her understanding of education law and policy, financial interests or agenda for the nation’s public schools. Unlike most previous education secretaries, DeVos has no record of commitment to public education as an educator, administrator or elected official.

Devos poses popular discontent not only with students, parents and those of us who are educators doing our best each day to lay the groundwork within schools all across the country; but based on the sheer frustration expressed by the Democratic state Senators who presented her with question after question (in which she either did not or poorly answered) during her humiliating Senate confirmation hearing, it was evident that she lacks reverence even from her political colleagues.  

Admittedly, I’d missed viewing the hearing in real time, therefore missing all of the live tweets and internet memes, however, during my commute to work, I was astonished to hear Devos’ seemingly confused response to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) when asked whether or not school performance should be assessed with more focus on proficiency or growth.  

Devos’ response Thank you Senator for that question. I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area…

With disappointment, Franken interrupted and clarified, Well that’s growth, that’s not proficiency… this is a subject that’s been debated in the education community for years… it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.

And sadly, this is just one of many concerning responses regarding education in America.  Opposing political parties or not, I’m certain that the Democrats would simply just appreciate a Republican candidate who at best, is able to demonstrate competence on education practices and policies.

But much like Devos’ decision to move forward and accept a role she clearly was not qualified for as Education Secretary, it should have been no surprise that she would comply with being the commencement speaker during not just any college graduation ceremony, but the ceremony of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

The history of HBCUs is rich and representative of black empowerment through unity and education as documented through a piece on the history of HBCUs in America:

They started in church basements, they started in old schoolhouses, they started in people’s homes,” says Marybeth Gasman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs. “[Former slaves] were hungry for learning … because of course, education had been kept from them.

Anyone who has attended an HBCU is conscious that black pride is an infectious and reigning presence on campus. And if you didn’t attend one, but were lucky enough to have been born early enough to watch episodes of A Different World and see the representation of black college life at the show’s fictitious Hillman College each week on your television, then you know how important it is to preserve this culture and ensure its legacy is maintained.

During a review of the 25 best fictional colleges and universities, Complex magazine lists Hillman as #1 and details,

At Hillman, the student body and faculty were like a family.  They pushed and pulled each other through the experience.

Although a fictitious institution, the art of Hillman College imitates life because despite HBCUs being affected by unequal government funding to support its students who are predominantly from low-income families, during a recent study, The Education Trust concluded that the graduation rates for Black students at HBCUs are 37.8 percent, while black students attending four-year for-profit institutions have a completion rate of dismal 18.8 percent in comparison.

So much like our city’s own K-12 schools which face many struggles and challenges, all though there is still a great deal of demand for equity and equality, HBCUs continue to foster black and intellectual pride, thus making a way for students who otherwise would not have one.

But where is that traditional black pride left to go when the president of the university decides to host a commencement speaker who recently referred to HBCUs asreal pioneers when it comes to school choice”.

I must admit, Devos does a fantastic job at sticking with what she knows; as that statement served as yet another failed attempt to advocate for a group with less privilege while maintaining the spotlight on her devotion to school choice.

The decision to invite a commencement speaker who does not embody that same spirit nor even demonstrates a basic understanding of the history of HBCUs was tone deaf and insensitive. We are living through highly charged times, and this decision pushed the envelope too far. It seems that politics drove this decision which is sad but also nothing new.  The privileged and powerful love to show up as super advocates to keep the oppressed quiet and happy and I’m sure college president Edison benefited from the exchange as well, but sadly, for the sake of his students and their families’ sacrifice and hard work.

Outside of the circus act that is the Trump administration and Betsy Devos’ public speaking blunders, knowing through both experience and research, that black students who attend HBCUs feel more supported and prideful than black students attending non-HBCUs, why make Betsy DeVos their final memory at school?

What should their takeaway be after voicing their opposition, yet still being subjected to seeing and hearing a speech by someone who has shown she doesn’t get it?

How should they feel after being scolded by their University president during their graduation ceremony?

For graduating students at any grade level, their commencement should be that final snapshot of their journey of hard work, sacrifice and discipline. It should be the final serving of a rich dialogue. Any guest speaker who contradicts this idea should expect a reaction of displeasure —even booing— during their speech. Perhaps these kinds of reactions by students will inspire those in leadership positions to take a deeper look at how and why they choose the person who is supposed to inspire and send the students off into the world on their graduation day.
Looks like this year that final snapshot wasn’t what anyone had hoped.

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