Editor’s note – This is the text of an open letter submitted to B-CU President Edison O. Jackson.
We, alumni and former leaders of the Student Government Association, publicly denounce the decision to invite Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to deliver Bethune-Cookman University’s 2017 Spring Commencement address.
The Secretary’s dismissal of the history and present day importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and her support of policies that do not serve the best interest of our institution, disqualify her as a speaker on this momentous day.
Additionally, commencement is not an occasion for academic or social discourse. Students will have no opportunity to engage the Secretary or her staff in meaningful discussion. This choice has, instead, invited a one-sided platform for the Secretary and drawn a media circus and ridicule for our beloved university.
Our esteemed founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, once said, “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything…that smacks of discrimination or slander.”
Earlier this year, Secretary DeVos released a statement glossing over the history of HBCUs. When speaking, Secretary DeVos declared, “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.” This statement was ill-advised, patronizing, and offensive.
HBCUs were founded when African-Americans were denied access to higher education because of a race-based system of oppression. Our institutions were created out of resistance and necessity.
Trivializing that history is unacceptable. We are aware that Secretary DeVos “clarified” her statement in a subsequent speech. However, we reject that to be merely a failed attempt to avoid further humiliation.
It is disheartening that our alma mater has chosen to invite a speaker who supports policies that serve to harm, not help, B-CU. Secretary DeVos supports a proposed federal Department of Education budget that would cut funding by 13.5 percent and roll back spending to 2008 levels.
The budget gives a $1.4 billion boost to charter school funding, while cutting $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant program. This is particularly disturbing when one considers that 90 percent of the students who enroll at B-CU do so from public schools, and 85 percent of the students enrolled receive Pell grants.
In a May 1, 2017 letter explaining the decision to extend an invitation to Secretary DeVos, President Edison Jackson referenced the University of Chicago’s 1932 lecture invitation to a controversial speaker. Dr. Jackson stated that then-University of Chicago President supported the invitation by asserting, “the cure for ideas that we may oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition….”
This University of Chicago example is irrelevant. During commencement, there will be no open discussion. Secretary DeVos has been invited to deliver a monologue, not to engage in dialogue.
There will be no sharing of ideas; rather, the Secretary has been given a one-sided opportunity to speak.
Dr. Jackson also asserts that it is not beneficial to suppress voices that we oppose. We agree.
Having Secretary DeVos appear before the student body in a town hall meeting or other open discussion forum would have served them far more effectively.
A commencement speech offers no opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue, gain exposure to different views, or discover mutual interests. In fact, this venue prevents the Secretary from ever having to answer questions from or hear the voices of a constituency group that will depart to serve the very children and communities impacted by her education policies.
Further, from the moment that B-CU announced Secretary DeVos as the speaker for the upcoming commencement, there has been an onslaught of negative media coverage. Given her lack of familiarity with the history of HBCUs and her views on policies that would actually bolster our institutions, coverage has been less than forgiving.
The acrimony that has risen between those that support and oppose her invitation only serves to divert focus from the graduates and their accomplishments. This will undoubtedly be fueled by the media and carry over to Graduation Day. We remember our own graduations with reverence and affection. The Class of 2017 deserves an experience that is free from negative media scrutiny and controversy.
While we have voiced our displeasure with the selection of the 2017 Spring Commencement speaker, we want to be clear that we unequivocally and wholeheartedly support our beloved alma mater. Our criticism and passionate opposition comes from a place of love and deep concern about the decisions made by the University’s leadership. Nevertheless, we remain committed to the institution and our charge to protect dear B-CU.
We must speak
Commencement at Bethune-Cookman is a joyous, momentous, and sacred occasion for our graduates, their families, and friends. The integrity of Dr. Bethune’s legacy and our own commitment to serve compels us to speak out.
We cannot support any action that will overshadow their day. We implore B-CU to rescind its invitation to Secretary DeVos – perhaps choosing to invite her for more purposeful discourse at a later date.
Former leaders of the Student Government Association
Kellie Adesina, President, 2002–2003
Adrienne M. B. Davis, President 2001–2002
Jeff Branch, Vice President, 2003–2005
Darnel Butler, Vice President, 2001–2002
Sharlee B. Peabody, President, 2006–2007
Jared M. Yancey, President, 2004–2005
Terrance Cribbs-Lorrant, Vice President, 2000–2001
Andrew J.W. Knowles, President, 2007–2008
Camille D. Burge, PhD, Vice President, 2007–2008
Asia McCoy, Student Representative to the Board of Trustees, 1999–2000
Jason Logan, President, 1998–1999
Corey J. Bartley, MBA, Executive Treasurer, 2000–2002
Ryanna Hooks, Senior Class President, 2002–2003
Reverend Charles E. Williams, Vice President, 1998–1999
Brian Barker, Junior Class President, 2000–2001
Jasmine Carnell, Miss Bethune-Cookman University, 2007–2008
Nnenna Muoghalu, Treasurer, 2007–2008
Keone Thomas, Councilperson at Large, 2007–2008
Tiffany Marshall, Vice President, 2008–2009
Dr. Jessica (Brereton) Peterkin, Miss Bethune-Cookman University, 2009–2010
Chandra Fleet, President, 2009–2010
Walter Servance, Secretary of Inventory, 2008–2009
Morgan Blount, Women’s Senate President, 2009–2010
Ebony Minter, President, 2011–2012
Courtney Bennett, President, 2005–2006
James William Robinson, Senior Class President, 2005–2006
Adia Brown, Executive Treasurer, 2003–2004
Chekinaa Turner, Executive Secretary, 2011–2012
Tavious J. Peterkin, Chaplain, 2007–2009
Shenique Gilbert, Secretary of Organizations, 2004–2005
Ricardo P. Deveaux, President, 1989–1990
T. Eileen Martin-Robinson, President, 1981–1982
Thometta J. Cozart, Secretary of Public Relations, 2002–2003
Kelli Fuller, Sophomore Class President, 2000–2001
Camilla Peterson-Jenkins, Vice President, 2005–2006
Carla Bell, Executive Secretary, 2001–2002
Rasa (Aaron) Drane, Miss Bethune-Cookman College, 2004–2005
Ensa Huger, Freshman Class Vice President, 2004–2005
April Wilson, Miss Freshman, 2004–2005
Tim Anderson, Secretary of Community Affairs, 2004–2005