Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is set to deliver the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday, despite vocal opposition from students at the school, civil rights organizations, and Florida education groups.
The historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, is at the center of criticism for providing a platform to the secretary to speak.
On Tuesday, petitions were delivered to university leaders urging college leaders to disinvite DeVos from attending the commencement ceremony. “Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs,” a petition signed by more than 8,000 people on change.org read.
Both current and former students from Bethune-Cookman have voiced their opposition to DeVos addressing the graduation class.
“Do not use Bethune-Cookman as a photo op,” Dominik Whitehead, who graduated from the school in 2010 and who started the petition, told the Washington Post. “Come to the table with something that is going to actually do something, in terms of policy, funding,” he continued.
Other education and civil rights organizations have taken a similar position. The Florida chapter of the NAACP asked Bethune-Cookman University to disinvite and withhold an honorary degree for DeVos, and the Florida Education Association also started a petition calling for a disinvitation, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Both DeVos and the Trump Administration have endeavored to engage historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in conversations about higher education, meeting with HBCU leaders and voicing support for their contributions.
But their efforts have been marked with gaffes and uncertainty about the administration’s plans to help better serve their institutions.
In February, DeVos ignited controversy with a statement linking school choice and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos had said in a statement after she met with leaders of HBCUs. She implied that HBCUs and school vouchers, of which DeVos is a fierce supporter, similarly afford better options to students. “[HBCUs] 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.”
She failed to acknowledge that many HBCUs were created because black students could not attend white segregated schools. They were, in other words, not providing better options, but the only options for these students. She later issued a series of tweets clarifying the racist history that necessitated the emergence of HBCUs.
And in a statement last week, President Trump seemed to indicate that key funding for HBCUs might be unconstitutional and therefore scrapped. Experts saw his comments as a signal that certain funding for HBCUs was at risk. He later pledged his “unwavering support” for the schools.
DeVos is set to give her remarks at Bethune-Cookman around 12 p.m. on Wednesday.