Betsy DeVos Booed During Speech At Historically Black College
By Kate Abbey-Lambertz
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was greeted by rounds of boos as students turned their backs to her during a graduation ceremony where she was the keynote speaker.
DeVos was selected to speak at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, a historically black university, despite strong opposition by many students and community members to her presence.
“I am honored to become a Wildcat,” DeVos began her speech, after receiving an honorary doctorate, raising her voice as a chorus of boos attempted to drown her out.
“If this behavior continues your degrees will be mailed to you,” Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson told the crowd as the boos continued. “Choose which way you want to go.”
DeVos said she welcomed the opportunity to speak with students, including those who disagree with her.
“I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve,” she said. “Please know this: We support you and we will continue to support you.”
Students also shouted in opposition when Jackson acknowledged White House communications official Omarosa Manigault, who was sitting in the audience.
“You don’t know her, and nor do you know her story,” Jackson admonished the crowd, sparking more boos.
DeVos’ speech ignited immediate controversy when it was announced earlier this month, and students criticized the school for selecting her after she downplayed the role of racism in the creation of historically black colleges and universities.
Protesters delivered petitions to the school’s leaders, calling on them to cancel DeVos’ speech due to her ignorance of HBCUs and lack of support for student loan borrowers. Organizers said they had collected 50,000 signatures.
DeVos praised HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” after meeting with school leaders in February.
“They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution,” she said in a statement.
The comment sparked immediate backlash for “whitewashing” the history of the institutions, formed in response to systemic discrimination that denied black students access to existing schools. DeVos later said that HBCUs were born “out of necessity, in the face of racism.” She issued a statement saying she was looking forward to the commencement, while reiterating her “support for HBCUs.”
“For someone to come and speak at my commencement that cannot relate to me or know what I have been through is kind of like a slap in the face,” graduating student Jasmine Johnson told the Washington Post.
The anti-DeVos petition described her invitation as an “insult” to the legacy of school founder and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and the NAACP Florida State Conference called on Jackson to resign.