Betsy DeVos Is Giving the Commencement Speech at a Historically Black College, and Students Are Protesting
Education Secretary Betsy Devos is slated to give the commencement speech on Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college. But a lot of students don’t want her there.
Bethune-Cookman’s president, Edison O. Jackson, announced the invitation last week—saying DeVos’ “mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy” of Mary McLeod Bethune, the college’s founder, NPR reports. But many student and alumni don’t agree—namely because her invitation comes on the heels of her recent statements about historically black universities.
In February, DeVos praised historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as “pioneers” of the school choice movement. But she was quickly criticized, as many of these educational institutions were founded during the Jim Crow Era—a time when most universities across the U.S. only catered to whites. And just last week, President Donald Trump suggested that funding for HBCUs might not be constitutional—though he tempered his comments when he later added: “It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”
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In response, the NAACP of Florida has called for the president and board chairman of the university, which is located in Daytona Beach, Fla., to step down. CNN reports that in response for speaking out against DeVos’ apperance, faculty members have been threatened with termination and students could have their degrees withheld. A spokesperson for the university was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Fortune to confirm this.
Initial protests against DeVos occurred last week, according to CNN, but more are expected outside the hall where DeVos is giving the commencement speech. Students, the NAACP Florida, and anti-Trump group Indivisible are also reportedly demonstrating at the event. Beyond that, a Change.org petition was also started in an attempt to stop her from delivering the commencement address.
But despite the opposition, Jackson has refused to rescind DeVos’ invitation.
“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,” he wrote in a statement.
Liz Hill, a spokesperson for DeVos, told TIME on Tuesday that DeVos is looking forward to “engaging in productive dialogue with the students, faculty, and staff during her visit.” She added: “Commencements are a time to celebrate the graduates and that’s what she will be focused on while at B-CU on Wednesday.”
President Donald Trump, too, has indicated his support for Devos. “Secretary DeVos chose an HBCU as the venue for her first commencement address to demonstrate my administration’s dedication to these great institutions of higher learning,” he said in a statement released Sunday.