Sabrina Siddiqui
May 10, 2017
The Guardian
The education secretary was drowned out by jeers upon taking the podium at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University and cut her address short

A group of students stand and turn their backs during a commencement exercise speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman University., John Raoux / AP,

Betsy DeVos was met with boos while addressing graduates of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida on Wednesday, as some students turned their backs in protest against Donald Trump’s education secretary.

DeVos, whose selection as the commencement speaker was opposed by many students and faculty at the historically black university, was drowned out by jeers upon taking the podium and at numerous points throughout her speech.

“While we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully,” she remarked.

“Let’s choose to hear one another out. I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for [historically black colleges and universities] and the students they serve.”

DeVos strained to overcome the hecklers, often raising her voice. The crowd had erupted in boos at the very mention of her name by Edison Jackson, the university’s president, who presented DeVos with an honorary doctorate.

DeVos finished her remarks in 20 minutes, as opposed to the one hour of allotted time. Photos and video of the event showed roughly half of the 380 graduates turning their backs on the education secretary, who was confirmed by the US Senate in February only by a historic tie-breaking vote cast by the vice-president, Mike Pence.

DeVos sought to underscore the Trump administration’s commitment to historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, telling her audience: “I am at the table fighting on your behalf.”

In late February, Trump held a meeting at the White House with representatives of 64 of the country’s 100 HBCUs. But advocates have been skeptical of the new administration, which has often projected a dismissive attitude toward civil rights.

DeVos came under fire herself in February for framing HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”, a reference to her desire to move toward a more privatized education system in the US.

Her comments were roundly condemned for ignoring the history of HBCUs, which were founded during the era of racial segregation. Laws at the time barred African Americans from attending schools, thus leaving them with no choice but to create their own.

Jackson defended the university’s decision to host DeVos in a statement, saying: “If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”





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