Thoughts On Disrespect … Bethune-Cookman Graduates vs Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos booed at Bethune-Cookman University

Students turn their backs in protest as Betsy DeVos delivers commencement address at historically black university. 

Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs in protest against US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the start of her commencement speech at the historically black institution.

Some graduating students shouted “Liar!” and “Just go,” as she powered through her speech on Wednesday at the Florida university.

“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” DeVos said, reading her prepared text in a measured tone despite continuing waves of boos, catcalls and scattered applause.

As the crowd kept trying to shout her down, university president Edison Jackson briefly took over the microphone to sternly lecture the class of 2017.

“If this behaviour continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,” Jackson warned. – al Jazeera, 11 May 2017

Betsy DeVos was, arguably, the worst possible choice for the position of Secretary of Education.  But that is typical of Trump’s staff picks.  Ms. DeVos was nominated by Trump because of the huge campaign contributions her family had made to Trump.  She is in full support of taking money away from public schools for such lesser-value options as school vouchers and charter schools.  One of her first moves after the senate rubber-stamped her nomination was to remove protections for those with student loans.  DeVos, who never attended public schools herself and who at times … most times … seems to be out of touch with the academic world, is likely to set our system of education back by decades.  All that said … what happened yesterday was inexcusable.

I cannot understand why Bethune-Cookman’s president, Edison O. Jackson, chose Ms. DeVos to give the commencement address, but I suspect it was a political decision.  In defense of his decision, he cited free speech, saying, “… if our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, they’ll be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.” While I do not disagree with his statement, I do disagree with his choice of DeVos.  It was unfair to her and it was unfair to the students, for whom this should have been a day filled with good memories, a sense of accomplishment, and a milestone to remember. The choice of DeVos to give the commencement speech was as disrespectful to the graduates as they were to Ms. DeVos.  There were no winners here.

In addition to simply being terribly un-qualified for her job, Ms. DeVos exhibited a lack of understanding for education in the African-American community last February when she described historically black colleges as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”.  Eventually somebody must have explained it to her, as she later acknowledged that these colleges were “born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism”.

A brief bit of history about Bethune-Cookman University:

B-CUIn 1904, when she was 29 years old, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University, created, with only $1.50, the Daytona Literacy and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. At first it had only five students. For the rest of her life, she remained committed to fostering and expanding educational opportunities for African Americans in the Jim Crow South. That one school, with those five girls, eventually became Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU). Within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) there is much pride to the historical commitment African Americans have always shown to educating their community.

“To honor someone, who not only needs to be educated rather than honored, is not just hypocritical, but it sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is honoring the status of the person as opposed to the actions of the person,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers

I agree that DeVos did not deserve to be honoured, and I would not have done so, had I been in the audience.  I would not have stood when she entered, would not have applauded.  However, I also would not have dishonoured her, as a human being, by turning my back, making rude gestures, or booing.  I would have been respectful, if not for her sake, for my own.  The students who indulged in rude behaviour only lowered themselves. As I said, there were no winners here.

19 thoughts on “Thoughts On Disrespect … Bethune-Cookman Graduates vs Betsy DeVos

  1. Any school choosing her for a speech is baffling, indeed. Even if they’re trading favors or whatever, they’ve gotta know that picking her wouldn’t go over well, you’d think!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is certainly the case that colleges and universities ought to invite people to speak with whom they disagree. But you are spot on: this was very poor timing. Commencement is a time to celebrate, not to open old wounds.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the students have the same right as she does, to free speech. This idea that you deserve respect because of position or simply because you are a human I think allows horrible people to do horrible things. While I wouldn’t have been as expressive perhaps, I would have stood while she spoke with my back to her.
    It is one thing to hear others view, I believe in that. If she was there to converse than this behaviour would have been detrimental. Though she was there to commemorate learning and knowledge, something from all reports she is trying to diminish.
    We should converse but when an opponent of what you’re honouring tries to insert themselves in that, you should show disrespect. I would probably take a more passivise approach. In short the type of actions were short sighted and not what I would do, but action should be taken. When words of hate or damage are spoke, silence is often a good counterbalance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the students had reason to protest, and certainly the right to do so. I just felt that this was neither the time nor the place, and they might have made a stronger statement by maintaining silence, not applauding, not boo-ing … just silence. Sigh. And it all could have been avoided if the president of the university had used some good sense.


  4. Like I said in the above comment the world just needs to chill out and burn a bowl! Other people are going to have different views than you. And if somebody doesn’t have the same view as you you don’t need to hate, or disrespect them just except the fact that everybody is different and you’re never going to be able to change that… and why would you even want to change that?the world is great because there are so many different opinions and cultures! And by trying to make everybody the same as you people will resist, people will fight, and people will unfortunately and inevitably die.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Jill,
    I couldn’t agree more. The student’s behavior reflected poorly on their alma mater. The choice to invite Betsy DeVos to address the students was also a tone deaf choice.
    I am a believer in respectful dialogue among those with different world views but this was not the right setting.

    You know that I AM NO FAN OF BETSY DEVOS. In my mind the big losers are the school personnel and the students. The school should have trained their students how to behave better so that they can more easily adapt to the real world. Someone else who was more appropriate should have been invited to deliver the commencement speech. And the kids poor behavior reflected poorly on themselves and their school. This event was widely publicized and there were no winners.

    Hugs, Gronda

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly! We can achieve so much more if we can have civil, respectful discourse rather than screaming at each other. The students should have known better, but the whole thing could have been avoided if the president of the university had exercised good sense.

      Liked by 1 person

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