DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (CNN) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced an auditorium of jeering Bethune-Cookman University graduates Wednesday as she gave a commencement address that many students and graduates said she was in no place to deliver.
As she opened her remarks, some students stood and turned their backs to her. At times hecklers drowned out her remarks.
Perhaps foreseeing the resistance she’d face during her speech, DeVos told the crowd, “While we will undoubtedly disagree at times I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear one another out. I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for (historically black colleges and universities) and the students they serve.”
The commencement program said she was slated to speak an hour or more, but she wrapped up her remarks in about 20 minutes.
A huge chorus of boos erupted when DeVos was awarded an honorary doctorate, and again when she said she would visit the home of school founder Mary McLeod Bethune to pay her respects.
School president warns students
Early in her speech, DeVos told the crowd, “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.”
At that point, the commencement became so rowdy that school President Edison Jackson interrupted DeVos’ remarks to issue a warning to graduates.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”
Many of the standing graduates took their seats, but a few remained standing, prompting Jackson to implore them again to sit down.
The tone seemed to soften as DeVos continued, exhorting the students to embrace service as they enter the next phases of their lives.
“The human heart is hard-wired for service, and it’s embedded in the DNA of this institution,” she said.
During the speech, a sophomore, Bobbie Luke, right fist aloft, was escorted out of the Ocean Center. He told CNN he didn’t know why he was removed.
“I’m standing with my seniors, man. No one likes her, man. Period,” he said. “I don’t like what she said, and nothing at the end of the day is going to change my opinion.”
‘Real pioneers’ remark follows DeVos
Before DeVos’ address, several students told CNN there was no place for her at commencement, and they’re miffed they didn’t have more say in picking a graduation speaker.
A primary reason for protesting her appearance — and for petitioning school officials to cancel her address — is her now-recanted statement that founders of historically black colleges and universities were “real pioneers” of school choice.
HBCUs, of course, were founded during segregation when black students were barred from attending white colleges in the South and beyond. DeVos walked back her comments, conceding the schools were born of racism, but it’s not enough for many on this campus nor those who hold it dear.
“She’s the secretary of education. Your job is to do research. Your job is to be committed to academia and know exactly what you’re talking about … what context you’re saying it in,” said 1996 graduate Fedrick Ingram, vice president of the Florida Education Association.
Asked if too much was made of her statement, he emphatically said no, calling her remark “blatant ignorance.”
Peaceful protests against DeVos’ appearance began last week, with demonstrators holding placards that read “DeVos No” and “Our tax $s pay for public education.” The NAACP Florida State Conference has urged the university president and board chairman to step down. On Tuesday, Dominic Whitehead, a 2010 graduate, led a group that delivered what he said was about 60,000 signatures asking the university to stop her speech.
A university official, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want to steal the spotlight from the university’s president, said 6,000 of the petitions were properly filled out, and of those, the majority came from outside the campus and Daytona Beach.
DeVos’ detractors charge that the education secretary has reduced consumer protections for student loan repayment plans and amnesty programs — something many Bethune-Cookman students depend upon. They’re also opposed to her past negative remarks on public education, of which many Bethune-Cookman students are products.
President Donald Trump over the weekend issued a statement saying, “Secretary DeVos chose an HBCU as the venue for her first commencement address to demonstrate my administration’s dedication to these great institutions of higher learning.”
‘They’re both female’
Junior Jasmine Smith, who helped deliver petitions to university leadership, said she felt DeVos was an inappropriate choice for her school’s spring commencement, simply because there’s so little common ground between her and the students she’ll be addressing.
“I believe (graduates) deserve a speaker who could relate to them as far as the struggle we go through within the education system, and I feel like she cannot relate in that aspect,” Smith said.
Asked about a university news release that compared DeVos to the school’s founder — saying they both appreciated “the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience” — Smith smirked.
“Similar qualities — they’re both female, but that’s pretty much all I can think of,” she said.
Free speech under attack?
Students and graduates denied their opposition to DeVos was infringing on the First Amendment. This isn’t about the free exchange of ideas, they said.
“I’m all for building bridges, and I welcome Secretary DeVos to meet me and more undergraduate students … but not at a commencement speech where it’s so one-sided,” Smith said.
Added Ingram, “If you want to have free speech, if you want to have a dialogue, if you want to learn, this is not the place for that. A commencement exercise is not a dialogue. It’s a monologue, so she’s going to have a one-way opportunity to talk about her ideology.”
School officials said Wednesday that DeVos had met with a group of about 15 students before her address.
Jackson, the university president, defended the invitation, saying it benefits students to hear from those with controversial ideals and differing beliefs.
“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.
Students and alumni have reserved plenty of their angst for Jackson and other members of the school’s leadership. They question why they didn’t learn DeVos would be the speaker until final exams were already underway, giving them little time to issue feedback.
Whitehead, the petition organizer, said the school’s founder “would not be pleased with (DeVos) being the commencement speaker” and would’ve demanded that the education chief have a real conversation with pupils — about public education, charter schools and other issues — before allowing her to address the student body.
“Dr. Bethune stood for education for all people,” Whitehead said. “Before giving a message, I think you need to hear the message and hear what HBCUs are about and the issues that affect us.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia and John Couwels reported from Daytona Beach, and Eliott C. McLaughlin wrote from Atlanta.