Bethune-Cookman University’s Class of 2017 commencement ceremony will be long remembered.
BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF
DAYTONA BEACH – If Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) President Edison Jackson was attempting to build bridges between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the Trump administration by selecting Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to be the Class of 2017’s commencement speaker, his efforts may have blown up spectacularly.
As the Florida Courier reported last week, confirmation of DeVos’ appearance quickly spiraled into a political battle that attracted national media attention. What followed was a tension-filled graduation week, climaxed by a commencement ceremony for the ages.
Since last week, Jackson has been castigated for favorably comparing DeVos to the school’s revered founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and casting opposition to her appearance at B-CU as an issue of free speech on the university’s campus.
His administration has been accused of threatening retaliation against students and faculty who disagreed with DeVos’ appearance. The allegation was taken so seriously by the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches that the NAACP gathered a group of South Florida lawyers who volunteered to legally defend students and faculty against B-CU if necessary.
The state organization also demanded that Jackson and Joe Petrock, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, both resign immediately.
An online petition against DeVos’ speech started by Class of 2010 alumnus Dominik Whitehead garnered more than 60,000 signatures – a number the university disputes.
“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy means so much to this community, the education community, African-Americans and all people,” Whitehead said while leading a protest and march on Tuesday.
“I am public school-educated. She (DeVos) stands for charter schools. Many of the students at B-CU attended public schools before B-CU. What DeVos and her family have done as far as dismantling public education across the country…the vision of Dr. Bethune and Secretary DeVos are two total separate visions.”
Proud to protest
Graduating senior Jasmine Johnson was proud to protest with Whitehead on Tuesday and on Wednesday, graduation day.
“Yes, I protested both days. I want my voice to be heard,” she said.
The school also has taken a beatdown on social media and has generated mostly negative coverage in national news outlets, including USA Today, Politico, HBCU Digest, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, BET, the Grio, and Huff Post, among others.
Johnson and Whitehead also voiced their opinions on the NAACP’s calls for resignations.
“I love the NAACP letter. I don’t think they have the power to have them resign or be fined. There were a lot of students who actually thought the president did resign. I definitely would support Dr. Petrock resigning, but I think that Dr. Jackson has been doing a great job up until this decision,” Johnson remarked.
Questions to answer
Whitehead replied, “I think the NAACP is looking for some transparency and accountability. That is the route that they are. I want to take the route of questions being answered. Students and their families deserve to have questions answered.
“I won’t say that Dr. Jackson and Dr. Petrock should resign. I do say they must answer questions and be held accountable. The university has yet to answer the voices, phone calls, emails and petitions on why this is happening.”
Initially, Jackson issued a bland statement in response to the NAACP demand. He then followed up with a more pointed response co-written with Petrock as a commentary in the Daytona Beach News-Journal daily newspaper.
After praising the NAACP and taking credit for a list of accomplishments at B-CU under their leadership, Jackson and Petrock dismiss the criticism.
“…(W)e find it disheartening that the NAACP is calling for our immediate resignations,” Jackson and Petrock wrote. “With much respect for the valuable work that the NAACP does, we must humbly share that the Board of Trustees of Bethune-Cookman University is the only entity that can make decisions regarding our tenures. The board has fully endorsed our leadership, and we look forward to serving faithfully and fully into the future.
“…(Far from what has been falsely claimed by the NAACP, Bethune-Cookman University has not threatened its faculty, staff or students.”
They also went on to say that the reason for inviting DeVos was to “advance an agenda for all of the nation’s 105 HBCUs.”
“It confounds each of us as to why certain members of the community appear disinterested in advancing the cause of HBCUs, but very interested in promoting dissention and issues that further divide our community,” they wrote.
The commentary ends with another list of their accomplishments while at the university.
It didn’t take long
At Wednesday’s commencement ceremony, things got ugly quickly. More than 200 protesters set up a raucous picket line at the Daytona Beach Ocean Center, the site of the commencement ceremony. Omarosa Manigault, one of Donald Trump’s top White House staffers, was booed during the introduction of dignitaries.
Audience members booed DeVos as an honorary degree was bestowed upon her. There was a song, then she spoke and was booed unmercifully through most of her 20-minute speech as approximately half of B-CU’s 2017 graduates stood and turned their backs to her.
Not long after she began speaking, Jackson interrupted her and stated that people who were being disruptive, including graduates, could leave. At least one member of the graduating class was escorted out.
Jackson warned that if the behavior continued, the students could leave and their degrees would be mailed to them. “Choose which way you want to go,’’ he said.
He urged graduates to be seated. They ignored him and continued to stand throughout DeVos’ address.
‘Hear each other’
At one point during her speech, DeVos said, “…And while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.”
The audience booed and tried to drown her out. She was cheered only when she mentioned three students by name, and described their “incredible personal hardships to reach this day.”
Her speech devoted significant time to the story of Dr. Bethune. Her final piece of advice, “a call to grace,” included a quote from the New Testament.
On Wednesday evening, DeVos issued a press statement.
“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” it read.
“I have respect for all those who attended, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs.
“B-CU’s class of 2017 has many remarkable students, and their strength and leadership make me optimistic for America’s future.”
Education historian Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, told the Los Angeles Times the protests didn’t help the students get their points of view across.
“This is a Trumpian reply to Trump’s secretary of education,” he said in a statement. “As president, he has flouted norms of civic exchange and democracy at every turn. Now his enemies are imitating him.”
Andreas Butler of the Daytona Times and Joy Resmovits of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.