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. White folks might prefer Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Wolf Blitzer or Sheryl Sandberg. 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 a woman 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?
I reached out to President Edison Jackson and several members of his team to discuss this. I’ve been to Bethune-Cookman University twice under President Jackson’s leadership and know, all too well, what kinds of pressures that HBCU presidents face as they juggle constituencies—faculty, students, alumni, community, trustees and many others. He might have found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, when he invited DeVoid; or he may have welcomed the opportunity.
We in HBCU Land (my special term for our space) play ourselves cheap. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Georgetown, and Stanford aren’t rushing to give Betsy DeVoid honorary degrees. They don’t think she deserves them. The woman with a simple undergraduate degree from the unremarkable Calvin College (yes, my elitism is showing), whose only contribution to the education arena is her rabid embrace of school choice, should not get an honorary degree from anywhere. Unfortunately, Bethune-Cookman University was first in line to debase itself by offering a degree to DeVoid.
DeVoid insulted the BCU community by recounting Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s life story as part of her commencement speech. How dare she tell us about ourselves in a way to attempt to endear us to her? Betsy DeVoid, you are no Mary McLeod Bethune. You can go to her gravesite, but you can’t channel her energy. Don’t get it twisted.
The low point of the B-CU commencement was the spectacle of President Edison Jackson chiding his students, because they had the integrity to protest the presence of Ms. DeVoid. He is their leader, their guru, their mentor. He should not have threatened his students, but instead offered them, and Ms. DeVoid, a series of palliative statements designed to honor the protest spirit of Dr. Bethune, and the awkwardness of the moment. Had I been a scolded student, I would have felt slimed; had I been understood, I might have felt differently.
If I were a member of the Bethune-Cookman University class of 2017, I would contribute, for the next few years, to a fund that supports student activists. I’d find a classmate to run the fund outside the confines of the university. I’d support the fund, because I support my college, but not an administration that insults the best day of our college career with an odious and repugnant speaker.
We have to resist the ways that “45” and his minions like Omarosa Manigault are pimping HBCUs. “Woke” Black people have to be aggressive in our financial support of HBCUs, and indifferent to the disingenuous overtures that would bring a devoid presence like Betsy DeVos to an HBCU campus.