I could not be more proud of the students at Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) than if I had raised them myself. Responding to the university’s very late selection of Education Secretary Betsy for the spring commencement speaker, graduating seniors chose to turn their backs on a woman who described HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice.” The students’ repudiation of DeVos’ very right to be present was well coordinated; the protest reflected their ability to be sophisticated, not reactive when confronted with a speaker that epitomizes the very refutation of their HBCU education. It is my hope and dream that these students can continue to operate in formation, as they oppose oppression.
I don’t know how DeVos (hereafter referred to as “DeVoid,” as she is devoid of good sense, history, literacy, and even courtesy) came to be B-CU’s commencement speaker. I suspect that the White House (Omarosa Manigault) made a call to offer an administration speaker and they went for it. Maybe Trump Whisperer Manigault’s new hubby, Florida Rev. John Allen Newman, has some ties to the college and he saw this as a way of burnishing his wifey’s credentials as a HBCU savior. Maybe there is a bunch of Black Republicans on the B-CU board of directors standing in the wings and hoping for goodies from “45.” Truly, this is all speculation but, most of the time, commencement speakers are secured months before graduation. This speaker was thrust on students and their families just ten days before the ceremony.
For most students, speakers are the sideshows, not the main deal in commencement, unless the speaker is someone like President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, or Viola Davis. Commencement speakers are expected to spout uplifting platitudes, offer sage advice, maybe share a private challenge, and wish the graduates well and do it in less than 20 minutes. Students are sitting at the edge of their seats, not because they are waiting for the punchline, but because they want their degrees.
What was B-CU President Edison Jackson thinking? In his printed statement on May 1, he said, “The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU. Moreover, students are directly impacted by funding dollars that are dispersed through the Department of Education. B-CU receives $4 million annually through Title III, which supports teaching, research and infrastructure. Additionally, Title IV impacts the ability of B-CU students to receive federal financial aid, overall influencing the ascension of Bethune-Cookman University students.”
Maybe President Jackson thought he was making friends by inviting DeVoid to speak at B-CU’s graduation. Actually, he made a spectacle of the graduation by inviting someone who had already disparaged HBCUs with her ignorance. And he did it in the same week when her boss, “45,” said (and then quickly reversed himself) that he was not sure that some federal provisions for HBCUs, such as the HBCU Capital Finance Program, are constitutional.
It is odious that DeVoid has received an honorary degree from B-CU. What has she done to earn it? According to President Jackson, “Through Secretary DeVos’ life work, her contributions extend far beyond her home state of Michigan. Secretary DeVos has supported educational opportunities for students in over 25 states and supported Central Florida through several philanthropic efforts: 100 Black Men of Central Florida; Jones High School, and the Parramore neighborhood located in Orlando to name a few. Secretary DeVos is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She is the wife of community activist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Dick DeVos, where they have four adult children and six grandchildren.” This earns her an honorary degree? Really?