Students booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (and Trump advisor and former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault), and many turned their backs on DeVos as she gave the keynote address at Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement Wednesday afternoon.
Last week, Trump suggested that federal financial support of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) was unconstitutional and hinted that he might end funding for them. Two days later, Trump flip-flopped and declared his unwavering support for them.
Many students and alumni had objected to having DeVos as speaker at one of the country’s most prestigious HBCUs, in part because they said that outreach is an empty gesture.
Graduates came into the auditorium smiling, many with flowers and other decorations plastered on their mortar boards, and listened to the ceremony politely, until the university’s president, Edison Jackson, introduced Omarosa. Students started booing.
When DeVos stood to receive her an honorary doctorate, many students booed again, and when she began speaking, thanking Jackson, the room erupted with shouts. About half the 380 graduates turned their backs on her.
Many later sat down, but shouts continued as she spoke loudly, saying that one of the hallmarks of higher education and democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom they disagree.
Jackson interrupted her speech with a warning to students. “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”
When she spoke about how she would later visit the home and gravesite of the school’s founder, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, some in the crowd could be heard shouting, “No!”
Donjele Simpson, who graduated with a bachelors degree in psychology, was one of a dozen students who kept their backs turned on DeVos for almost all of her speech. “She made racist comments about HBCUs, she doesn’t know anything about us, and she has the nerve to come down here and speak to us,” Simpson said. “And then she has the nerve to speak about Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy. What does she know about that?”
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