B-CU’s administration vs. students and alums, Republicans vs. Democrats, public education vs. charter schools, academic freedom vs. free speech. It’s all at issue as Donald Trump’s point woman on American education speaks to HBCU grads.
BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF
DAYTONA BEACH – After days of rumors circulating among Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) alumni and students that prominent school choice advocate and current U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would be the Class of 2017’s commencement speaker on May 10, confirmation of DeVos’s appearance quickly spiraled into a political battle that attracted national media attention.
DeVos has been harshly criticized among advocates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as a consequence of a press statement she issued during this year’s Black History Month observance in February.
The statement read, in part, “…we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential. HBCUs…started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education…
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
No historical context
Her Feb. 28 statement didn’t mention that HBCUs originated as a response to a racist American system of higher education that, with few exceptions, refused to admit African-Americans to predominately White colleges and universities for almost 200 years of the nation’s history.
Backlash followed soon after DeVos’s statement with many accusing her of ignoring and distorting America’s history of educational racism in a way that supports her advocacy for school voucher programs that take money away from public schools.
Last week, the Florida Courier sent an email requesting that B-CU confirm or deny that DeVos would speak at commencement, but got no response.
Once the rumor was mentioned online at Politico.com on April 30, B-CU President Edison Jackson confirmed that DeVos would speak in a May 1 “Message from the President.” The Department of Education officially announced the speech soon thereafter.
Won’t shelter students
“As a veteran educator, I am especially sensitive to balancing the notion of academic freedom with quelling potentially hateful and harmful rhetoric,” Jackson stated. “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.
“When we seek to shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas.
Additionally, the sheer diversity of our human family requires us to listen to and understand one another. We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social, and racial silos.”
Jackson went on to put the DeVos commencement speech in the context of actions taken by the school’s founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, to solicit support from oil barons John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler and James Proctor of the Proctor and Gamble company, among others.
“These individuals represented diverse political and social views, but Dr. Bethune invited them all to visit and support her institution. It is in that same vein that I have chosen to provide our students with an opportunity to hear from someone with whom they may disagree, but someone who has the ability to potentially influence their future,” Jackson explained.
Blistering NAACP response
Citing what it called DeVos’s “horrible public education record impacting Blacks and minorities in Florida and around the country,” the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches responded to Jackson’s confirmation by asking DeVos to decline B-CU’s invitation to speak.
“We believe the leadership of Bethune-Cookman University should not bestow an honorary degree to Secretary DeVos based on her post-secondary education record,” said state president Adora Obi Nweze, calling B-CU’s actions “unusual.”
“Their plan (is) to honor a person who has been on the job less than one hundred days and has no record of advancing educational equity for all students… If Secretary DeVos ultimately speaks at commencement and receives an honorary degree, this would be a slap in the face to minorities, women and all communities of color,” Nweze exclaimed.
The B-CU controversy laid bare the two sides battling for the direction of, and the dollars invested in, the American educational system.
Republicans like DeVos – a billionaire GOP donor who has financially supported charter school and voucher advocates, including Black churches in Florida that run Christian charter schools – are generally on one side of the educational argument. The NAACP, teachers’ unions, and Democrats are on the other. Jackson is a registered Republican.
DeVos is also scheduled to appear at a B-CU-hosted prayer breakfast at the Orlando’s Amway Center the day after commencement. Her father-in-law, Rich DeVos, founded the Amway Corporation and owns the Orlando Magic, the city’s National Basketball Association team.
Dueling online petitions
As of late Wednesday night, the Florida Courier’s press time, more than 5,500 people had signed an online petition, written and posted April 29 by B-CU alumnus Dominick Whitehead, to stop DeVos from speaking.
“Last month DeVos weakened consumer protection for student loan borrowers. According to U.S. News & World Report, 97 percent of full-time undergraduates who attend BCU receive some sort of need-based financial aid,” Whitehead writes.
“…(T)he median earning of a graduate from B-CU is approximate $22,000 per year for the first two years after graduating. This would make it virtually impossible to immediately begin to pay off an estimated $52,000 in student loan debt.
“President Barack Obama’s administration offered income-based repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs. DeVos’ April 11th memo threatens to dismantle those very helpful programs. This means that lenders will not have any restrictions while attempting to collect the money that was borrowed by students.”
Instead of having DeVos speak at graduation, “let’s welcome her to the table and have meaningful dialogue about stronger policies, the White House HBCU Initiative, and the importance and contributions of HBCUs,” Whitehead suggests.
A separate Change.org petition – posted by Nzhada Harris on May 1, the same day as Jackson’s ‘Message’ was distributed – supports DeVos’s appearance.
“Education is a non-partisan issue that every individual should have the right to obtain,” the petition states.
As of Wednesday night, it had 69 supporters.
A student speaks
Shavona Bouey, a senior mass communications major in B-CU’s 2017 graduating class, spoke exclusively to the Florida Courier.
“As you can imagine, it’s been pretty chaotic for myself and other students to fully understand why Mrs. DeVos is being welcomed as the spring commencement speaker. Students even held a protest against Mrs. DeVos,” she asserted.
“My mother and other family members don’t support the things Mrs. DeVos says and neither do I.
HBCUs were created by force. African-Americans had no other options, or choice, I shall say.
DeVos clearly forgot about slavery and Jim Crow laws, among other things.
“Why does someone who speaks so unethically about HBCUs be given the opportunity to speak at one? I’ve yet to come up with an answer,” she lamented.
It’s not the first time the university’s leadership has been criticized for honoring a prominent Republican leader.
Last fall, B-CU’s administration caught flak for weeks from supporters over the decision to give Florida Gov. Rick Scott the university’s most prestigious award, citing what they allege is Scott’s long record of anti-Black initiatives – including cuts to HBCU funding – as reasons he wasn’t qualified to receive it.
Vocal opposition against Scott receiving the award named after B-CU’s founder included a statewide letter-writing campaign, an online petition that garnered about 800 signatures, and an outcry of injustice lodged by the state and Volusia County-Daytona Beach leaders of the NAACP.