“The Honorable Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education Will Serve as Keynote Speaker at Bethune-Cookman University Commencement,” the headline for a press release on the site of Bethune-Cookman University stated.
It wasn’t long after that the historically black college in Florida caught a load of criticism which first exploded on social media for the invite. The current Secretary of Education is not only a billionaire donor to President Donald Trump but soon after she took the helm at the Department of Education, DeVos released a press release which stated in part:
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
The statement earned a lengthy round of criticism for obvious reasons. First off, DeVos appeared to be clueless about the basic history of HBCUs. There was no “choice” when it came to higher education for African Americans after the Civil War. The schools were the only way African Americans could obtain a higher education. Historically Black Colleges and Universities were created after the Civil War as a way of educating freed slaves who were barred from enrolling in white colleges and universities. Seventeen states, mostly in the South excluded black students from their colleges. In response Congress established Black land grant institutions.
“The news is super confusing considering the pro-school-choice head of education once famously flubbed that HBCUs were the true pioneers of school choice, rather than that HBCUs were created because blacks weren’t allowed to attend colleges and universities with whites,” wrote Stephen Crockett in The Root of Bethune-Cookman’s invite to DeVos.
Adora Obi Nweze of the Florida NAACP called the invitation DeVos from Bethune-Cookman a “slap in the face.”
Those sentiments didn’t dissuade Bethune-Cookman University from inviting DeVos. On February 28th, HBCU Presidents visited the White House to speak on behalf of their schools. Many roundly criticized the visit as just a photo op that didn’t not advance HBCUs in a meaningful way.
Activist educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune started the private school in Daytona Beach that would later become the famed HBCU Bethune-Cookman.
Days after the controversy heated up, Mary McLeod Bethune’s grand daughter Evelyn Bethune chimed in.
“Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and for their families,” said Bethune, whose grandson will graduate with a master’s degree next week. “That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited.”
In an interesting public relations decision, a Bethune-Cookman press release on the “backlash” after the decision to invite DeVos to speak at the commencement, compared the legendary civil rights leader with Secretary DeVos.
“Dr. Bethune was non-partisan and it is our responsibility to use wisdom in advancing her mission with those that were not deemed as natural allies,” the statement read.
In an earlier statement on DeVos being invited to keynote, Bethune-Cookman President Dr. Edison Jackson said, “Bethune-Cookman University is a school built on the legacy and the transformation of students. Dr. Bethune’s love for students started with five little girls and grew to over 250 students during her time as university president. The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU.”
“Over the last three decades, DeVos has devoted her career in support of the opportunity for a quality educational experience for students. It appear unlikely the school will switch speakers less than a week before graduation. It also appears likely that there will be protests as a result.