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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered a controversial commencement speech at a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Wednesday. (Photo: @CUDJOE70/Twitter)

Graduates Turn Their #BackstoBetsy DeVos at HBCU Commencement Speech

Education secretary's selection described as "very tone deaf, not only to the students of the university and its supporters, but to African-Americans"

Deirdre Fulton

Citing her tone-deaf statement earlier this year that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," students and activists protested Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she delivered the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday.

Following a morning demonstration that saw about 60 people marching and waving signs, many students turned their back on DeVos during her address.

Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Adam Harris, who previewed the protest on Wednesday, covered the day's happenings in a long thread on Twitter:

Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Florida, announced the invitation last week, saying DeVos' "mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy" of Mary McLeod Bethune, the college's founder.

But opponents disagreed, countering that DeVos' support for school privatization, shaky grasp of educational history, and recent salvos against student loan borrowers are grounds to rescind her invitation.

Last week, a group of protesters delivered a petition with tens of thousands of signatures to the university's administration, calling for DeVos to be disinvited. Florida NAACP chapter president Adora Obi Nweze also asked the university to take back its offer. "What makes the Bethune-Cookman University approach unusual," Nweze said, "is their plan to honor a person who has been on the job less than 100 days and has no record of advancing educational equity for all students."

Added Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of the college who now works as a political action representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and launched a petition drive on Change.org to rescind the invitation: "It's very tone deaf, not only to the students of the university and its supporters, but I think it's tone deaf to African-Americans."

And several people—including Volusia County-Daytona Beach NAACP president Cynthia Slater and Dr. Bethune's own granddaughter, Evelyn Bethune—have objected to DeVos's speech for fear the controversy will divert attention away from the graduation itself.

The university refused requests to disinvite DeVos, saying in a statement: "We have not and will not seek to chill the free speech of our students and faculty, as we support the free exchange of alternative ideas in all academic efforts."

However, according to the Florida NAACP, since the initial outcry, "multiple allegations have surfaced" of the Bethune-Cookman administration using threats and intimidation to dissuade faculty and students from protesting the secretary's speech. These have led to calls for university president Dr. Edison Jackson and board chairman Dr. Joe Petrock "to resign effective immediately."

"The university leadership has drastically fumbled and should resign," Nweze said.


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