A statement released Monday by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos exposes her lack of knowledge about both education policy and American history, critics said.
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," DeVos said in the statement marking President Donald Trump's meeting at the White House with leaders of such institutions. Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday moving the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which was previously part of the Department of Education, back to the White House.
Of HBCUs, Devos said: "They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, that are afforded greater access and great quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish." Prior to her nomination, billionaire philanthropist DeVos spent her career lobbying for so-called "school choice" schemes such as vouchers and charter schools.
But journalists, civil rights advocates, and historians were quick to condemn DeVos' use of HBCUs as a symbol of "choice."
Calling the statement "insane," Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote for Slate:
[T]his official 2017 federal government press release celebrates legal segregation (!!!) on the grounds that the Jim Crow education system gave black students "more options," as if there was a robust competition between HBCUs and white universities for their patronage. (When black Mississippian James Meredith chose the "option" of enrolling at the University of Mississippi in 1962, a massive white mob formed on the campus; two people were shot to death and hundreds injured in the ensuing battle/riot, during which federal marshals came under heavy gunfire, requiring the ultimate intervention of 20,000 U.S. soldiers and thousands more National Guardsmen.)
And Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written numerous books about the history of black colleges and serves as director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, had this to say on Facebook:
Take a look at this ahistorical and inaccurate depiction of HBCUs by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. See how HBCUs and their creation are described —'they saw that the system wasn't working.' [...] And then folks are wondering why I don't advocate for kowtowing with Trump and his White supremacist friends. They are trying to pretend that a vast system of oppression, slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination never existed. And then using HBCUs to promote their school choice agenda ... give me a break. Stop falling for the okie doke people! You can't negotiate with White supremacists for Black rights and opportunities. #WhitewashingHBCUhistory
Furthermore, Matthew Yglesias noted at Vox, DeVos' statement exposes that "she doesn't seem to have any grasp of the higher education aspect of her portfolio. The whole 'choice' issue is irrelevant to American higher education policy, and thus irrelevant to federal interactions with Historically Black Colleges and Universities."
Other critiques poured in on Twitter:
— The CBC (@OfficialCBC) February 28, 2017
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— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) February 28, 2017
Betsy DeVos on HBCUs as "school choice" vs. basic historical facts about segregation on her own department's website pic.twitter.com/b6fs5v78W0
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) February 28, 2017
I'm still just blown away at DeVos using HBCUs to reinforce rhetoric on (resegregating) school choice. The snake eats its tail.
— Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) February 28, 2017
Betsy DeVos said HBCUs were about school choice. As if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options. pic.twitter.com/I3tNlER43n
— Resist Dystopia (@AynAyahSteenkur) February 28, 2017
HBCUs were founded because Black Americans were not permitted at white institutions and there was increased need for them following slavery https://t.co/ADwQREqpMd
— Bree Newsome (@BreeNewsome) February 28, 2017
Dear Betsy Devos. Multiple choice exam. I'll keep it grade level for you and allow your privilege to matter. #HBCUs were founded because of:
— karla fc holloway (@ProfHolloway) February 28, 2017
Betsy DeVos's HBCU statement is reason no. 379 that she should not be secretary of education.
— Duke Sage (@realdaveshelton) February 28, 2017
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) February 28, 2017
Meanwhile, Dillard University president Walter M. Kimbrough, who attended Monday's meeting, offered a bleak assessment of what he described as ultimately just a photo-op.
Though the ostensible goal of the event "was for officials from a number of federal agencies...and Secretary DeVos to hear about HBCUs," Kimbrough wrote on Medium, "there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today." He said a last-minute decision to visit Trump in the Oval Office "threw the day off," giving speakers limited time to offer meaningful remarks.