LOSERS AND WINNERS

In random order, here’s our analysis of the aftermath of the controversy surrounding U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commencement speech this month at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF

 B-CU President Edison O. Jackson and Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Joe Petrock – LOSERS – They are the unaccountable top leadership of the private (and increasingly secretive) university and the two faces of this easily avoidable debacle. Under their leadership, B-CU is not ready for the proverbial “prime time.”

Bethune-Cookman University’s campus, typically a beehive of activity, was deserted soon after the controversial commencement ceremony on May 10.
(FLORIDA COURIER / CHARLES W. CHERRY II)

The Florida Courier has reported previously about the university’s lack of organizational transparency amid questions about the true state of its finances.  Jackson and Petrock handled the DeVos controversy much as they have responded to that provocative issue: with press statements, and without consideration of the impact of their unilateral decisions on the university’s wider list of stakeholders, advocates and supporters.

For years, Jackson and Petrock have been engaged in a well-intentioned outreach to big Republican political leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and now the Trump administration. We fully support that outreach as we believe that Black organizations, particularly HBCUs, should have “no permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”

But it’s ridiculous to believe that B-CU’s political culture and leanings – especially given Black America’s continued dysfunctional love affair with the Democratic Party – could or would be changed overnight.

The Jackson-Petrock GOP initiative has backfired badly for two reasons.

First, rather than using small panel discussions, on-campus interviews, seminars or town hall-style meetings with students to introduce high-level Republican politicians to the school’s community, Jackson and Petrock decided to bestow the school’s highest honors to people with no clear record of support or achievement related to either B-CU or its mission as a historically Black university. 

Secondly, Jackson and Petrock underestimated the opposition – especially of alumni – to their methodology, thus proving themselves to be tin-eared and out of touch.

Additionally, neither Jackson nor Petrock seemed to recognize or understand that their decision to bring in DeVos caused a major short-term crisis at B-CU that demanded crisis management. When both social and traditional media, including Twitter, Facebook and mainstream newspaper outlets picked up the story and it became viral, B-CU’s leadership quickly became overwhelmed.

Specifically, Jackson’s attempt to justify the decision quickly backfired and ignited a firestorm of its own.

“Much like Dr. Bethune…Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience. Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune,” Jackson was quoted in an error-filled university press release.

It is mind-boggling that B-CU’s president would dare compare Dr. Bethune –  a Black woman one generation removed from American slavery who started the school with $1.50 in her pocket and six students, including her son, entrusted to her care – to DeVos, a wealthy White woman who was born into, then married into, extreme wealth, and who is singularly focused on defunding America’s public schools.

As the tension-filled Commencement Week wore on, Jackson’s brittle, high-handed response to the crisis resulted in him completely unmasking himself.

Look at this quote from an editorial in Daytona Beach’s daily newspaper, the News-Journal:
…Jackson earlier this week went on Facebook Live and the campus radio station to attack critics, saying they were “selfish in their intent” and “away with them!” He also seemed to value a person’s opinion by the size of his wallet, comparing the protesters’ commitment to the university to that of Petrock and six other trustees who have donated more than $1 million apiece.

“They haven’t given anything, and then they question the members of the Board of Trustees?”

Jackson said. “So if you are saying we ought not be supportive of Secretary DeVos, then where is your money? Show me your money.”

(Sources close to B-CU’s Board of Trustees confirm that Jackson’s reference to million-dollar donations refers to insurance policies payable upon death and pledges made to the university, not to current donations of cash, stocks, bonds or other assets.)

Jackson and Petrock refused to reconsider DeVos’ appearance. They didn’t treat students like the thoughtful adults B-CU claims to be educating by allowing them to voice their opposition in advance, and coming to a collaborative decision about a day that truly belonged to them.

At the commencement ceremony, Jackson warned the protesting graduating class that if they continued to protest DeVos’ speech, “your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”

Did Jackson forget he was speaking to education “consumers” who are paying thousands of dollars – and perhaps incurring a lifetime of student debt – for the B-CU experience which demands that they “Enter to Learn – Depart to Serve?”

If Jackson did forget who he was speaking to, what can the university’s students and alumni expect regarding “customer service?”

B-CU’s Board of Trustees – LOSERS – A look at their faces during the commencement ceremony reveals they were caught sleeping. To our knowledge, no dissident group emerged from the board to stand with students and alumni. Did local board members who live in the Daytona Beach area give Jackson and Petrock a heads up about how damaging DeVos’ appearance could be to local stakeholder relationships? And there’s no indication so far that board members will hold Jackson and Petrock accountable for anything.

The Bethune-Cookman University National Alumni Association – LOSERS –  The university’s official alumni association sat silently on the sidelines even as the newest members of their organization, the Class of 2017, were making their collective voice heard around the world.

Perhaps the association’s nonsupport should have been expected. They have also stood silently by as two of their distinguished longtime members, Ray Brinson and Robert Delancy, separately sued the board of trustees for not following its own rules regarding the tenure of trustees.

If the association won’t support Delancy – the association’s legally designated representative to the B-CU board that Jackson, Petrock, and other trustees allegedly refuse to seat – maybe it shouldn’t be expected to support Class of 2017 members who have yet to make their first dues payment.

B-CU students and their organic leadership – WINNERS – Many, from freshman to seniors, rightly feared retaliation from Jackson, but they stood up anyway. And after discussions with dissident B-CU alumni, they protested silently, with purpose and understanding, using tactics from the 1917 NAACP “Silent Protest Parade,” in which there were no songs or chants.

According to Florida Courier and Daytona Times reporting (and contrary to other media stories), the students did NOT boo or try to shout DeVos down. They all remained silent as they stood and turned their backs and as some walked out. The noise came from the assembled crowd of friends, relatives and other onlookers.

Special recognition goes to twins Taylor and Tyler Durrant, Shavona Bouey, Jasmine Johnson, Camre Williams, Evelyn McClaine, Lexis Melo, and freshman Ashlyn Denson, among others who spoke openly to the media. 

Dissident B-CU alumni – WINNERS – Ignoring the silence of their official alumni association, they acted on their own, including two local marches, responses on radio talk and TV news shows, online petitions that attracted thousands of signatures, and effective use of social media. Local alumni supported, counseled and advised students from the beginning to the end of the controversy, and pushed back hard against opinion pages and commentaries that attempted to justify DeVos’ appearance.

The legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune –WINNER –  As an unintended consequence of Jackson’s ham-handed comparison of DeVos to Dr. Bethune, people who wanted to understand the controversy acquainted themselves, some for the first time, with Dr. Bethune’s legacy. For a few days before and after the commencement ceremony, there was a modest increase in Google searches of variations of Dr. Bethune’s name, as well as high levels of chatter about her on social media.

Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches – WINNER – Immediately after DeVos’ appearance was confirmed, the state conference shot out a sharply-worded press release in opposition (it went national instantly), and subsequently called for Jackson’s and Petrock’s resignations. They mobilized quickly with the local Daytona Beach area branch and kept consistent pressure on the university’s leadership throughout the drama.

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