Trouble and controversy seem to follow Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wherever she goes–a sign perhaps that she should not be in charge of anything, nevertheless be entrusted with something so important as schooling in the United States. But sadly, there she is, never having been an educator or having even attended public schools, deciding on policy for millions of students in our country. Experts say that her troubling stance on character development in schools means that we have cause to worry about an increase of black and LGBTQ students in the school-to-prison pipeline. Not to mention her choice last month to appoint a woman as head of the Office of Civil Rights of the Education Department who not only has no background in civil rights law but seems adamantly opposed to protecting students from gender, race, age and disability discrimination.
Additionally, there’s her completely tone deaf comments about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) being pioneers of “school choice” as opposed to what they really were–responses to racist laws that refused to admit blacks into institutions of higher education. So it’s not surprising then, to say the least, that an HBCU’s choice to select Betsy DeVos as a commencement speaker would have some very upset.
Florida NAACP leader Adora Obi Nweze has called the invitation to [Bethune-Cookman University] a “slap in the face,” and a former student at the Daytona Beach college launched a petition drive to rescind the invitation.
Evelyn Bethune, granddaughter of school founder Mary McLeod Bethune, said a commencement is the wrong forum for DeVos because it should be a “very sacred ceremony.”
“Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and their families,” said Bethune, who graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1979 and whose grandson will graduate with a master’s degree [on May 10th]. “That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited.”
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, launched a petition drive on Change.org to rescind the invitation, collecting more than 5,400 signatures [by May 3rd, two days after the announcement was made.]
The school stands by its decision, saying that it is important to find common ground with everyone. Except it appears that common ground doesn’t apply to students and the NAACP who are calling for the resignation of both the school’s president and the chairman of the Board of Trustees. But their outcry is not without pushback. Supposedly the university is now threatening any student who protests DeVos’s speech with fines and withholding their degrees.
“Since our initial public outcry last week, multiple allegations have surfaced, including faculty intimidation demanding their silence or risk termination and threats to students by potentially withholding earned degrees and fines for freedom of expression,” the NAACP said. “If these allegations were proven, this contrasts the public statements of university administration who oppose suppressing voices by welcoming DeVos, but lends indirect support to these actions against faculty and students.”
Cynthia Slater, President of the NAACP Volusia County-Daytona Beach Chapter, said the university is threatening to withhold the degrees and transcripts for any senior who protests. Undergraduate students could face suspension, be kicked out of organizations or face a fine.
“They’ll have a fine of $1,000. I don’t know where they get this arbitrary number of $1,000 from,” she said.
It’s bad enough the school is threatening students who protest who are smart enough to know that this is nothing more than just another photo op for the Trump administration who has no real interest in black students and their education. In Fact, just as recently as last week, Trump was playing games with funding for HBCUs, going back and forth about whether or not providing federal funding for them is constitutional. And this fact has not escaped the attention of the Florida NAACP.
[This article on the controversy of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appearing as a commencement speaker first appeared in DAILY KOS UNIVERSITY, Black Kos community, Daily Kos Liberation League and Daily Kos. It is re-printed here with the appreciation of Daily Kos.]