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Betsy DeVos Spoke at Bethune-Cookman Commencement. Audience Noise Was Constant; FL NAACP Issued a Formal Opposition Statement.

May 10, 2017

I watched US ed sec Betsy DeVos’ 23-minute speech to Bethune-Cookman grads on May 10, 2017. The full video is below:

I do not envy DeVos the task. DeVos stumbled over her words a number of times as she faced an audience of graduates set on actively resisting her as she spoke.

DeVos’ voice cracked as she spoke of Mary McLeod Bethune. I am sure the pressure to complete this speech was profound. However, DeVos is a walking controversy, the most controversial US ed secretary to date.

She made a smart decision to include the stories of three of the Bethune-Cookman students in her remarks. The graduate audience behaved best when DeVos spoke of these specific students.

She continued to verbally stumble. I have attended numerous graduations, and I have yet to hear a commencement speaker falter as much in his/her speech.

Based upon DeVos’ voice, particularly as her remarks approached the 19-minute mark, it seemed to me that DeVos might be on the verge of tears. Still, she seemed to regain composure around the 20-minute mark.

One can read the text of DeVos’ speech here.

She did not use the opportunity to overtly sell school choice.

DeVos did say that she “want[ed] to re-affirm this Administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and the students they serve”; she added, “Please know this: we support you, and we will continue to support you.”

Of course, only days prior, Donald Trump threatened HBCU funding because he appears to consider such funding as unconstitutional.

The Florida State Conference of the NAACP was decidedly against having DeVos speak at the 2017 Bethune-Cookman commencement. NAACP concerns include “faculty intimidation demanding their silence or risk termination”:

The NAACP Florida State Conference is calling on Bethune Cookman University President Dr. Edison Jackson and Board Chairman Dr. Joe Petrock to resign effective immediately. Since our initial public outcry last week, multiple allegations have surfaced including faculty intimidation demanding their silence or risk termination and threats to students by potentially withholding earned degrees and fines for freedom of expression. If these allegations are proven, this contrasts the public statements of university administration who opposes suppressing voices by welcoming U.S. Education Secretary DeVos but lends indirect support to these actions against faculty and students.

We have been in contact with several attorneys around the state, and have received support from numerous including the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, who has agreed to represent faculty and students who peacefully protest and are subject to retaliation by the university. Our partners have reviewed the university student code of conduct, and it does not contain any prohibition on peaceful protests and freedom of expression. The NAACP Volusia County Daytona Beach Branch and several attorneys will be on the ground monitoring this situation.

We still believe Secretary DeVos should not speak at commencement and that she has no record supporting an honorary degree by Bethune Cookman University. With the recent comments of President Trump suggesting federal funding for HBCU’s is unconstitutional; this validates our view of a horrible decision by the university inviting Secretary DeVos, who still has not pledged to drastically increase funding for all historically black colleges and universities. The university leadership has drastically fumbled and should resign” says Adora Obi Nweze, President of NAACP Florida State Conference and member of the National Board of Directors.

Betsy DeVos: A walking controversy escorted by her own federal marshals. 

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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

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7 Comments
  1. Christine Langhoff permalink

    In other protest news, Paul Ryan got a rousing reception at Success Academy:

  2. No matter how much one dislikes Trump or dislikes DeVos or her positions, what happened at this ceremony was embarrassing — and not for DeVos.

    I was appalled. What’s next kids? Throwing yourselves on the ground and kicking and screaming?

    • Lisa M permalink

      Yes…..kicking and screaming, and protesting and protesting and protesting. What is embarrassing is that Devos had the audacity to show her face and to receive an honorary degree. I am appalled by the actions of Devos, the BCU President and Board members. Graduation is about the students and their academic accomplishments and not about Devos making a dog and pony show out of the event for photo ops.

      • May DeVos very quickly find that our nation’s students are not simply uninformed patsies waiting to be used…

      • Thanks for proving the point I was making.

    • Jack Covey permalink

      Ms. Dillon,

      Mario Savio’s classic “machine” speech applies in this instance:

      MARIO SAVIO: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

      That’s what the Bethune-Cookman grads were doing, and I am far from alone in saluting them.

      Savio’s speech is also relevant to the Bethune-Cookman protest as both involve vociferous and principled criticism of despicable and craven acts on the part of a university president and management — Savio’s Berkeley, and Bethune-Cookman, respectively:

      Watch that part of Savio’s speech as you read along to the transcript just below:

      MARIO SAVIO: “We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received, from a well-meaning liberal, was the following: He said:

      ” ‘Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?’

      “That’s the answer!

      “Well, I ask you to consider: If this is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors; and if President Kerr in fact is the manager; then I’ll tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be—have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product. Don’t mean… Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone!

      “We’re human beings!”

    • A.P, agreed. I’m no fan of DeVos, but she was an invited guest. To humiliate a guest and act like a bunch of middle schoolers does not impress me. Basic courtesy and civility seem to be a lost art, and it is equally appalling how many people supported this rudeness in the name of opposing oppression.

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