University stands by DeVos despite petition, protests

Students at Bethune-Cookman University are furious that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is slated to deliver their commencement address, calling the invitation an “insult” to graduates.

After confirming that DeVos is scheduled to speak at the school, which is among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), BCU alumnus Dominik Whitehead created a petition demanding that the invitation be rescinded.

At press time, the petition had garnered 5,661 signatures in the space of five days, approaching its goal of 7,500.

“With all the facts provided, why on earth would Bethune-Cookman University invite Secretary DeVos to be the commencement speaker for their spring graduation ceremony?” the petition asks. “Bethune-Cookman University doesn't need a photo op from the Trump Administration, we need action done by this administration for all HBCUs.”

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President Trump did, notably, recently sign an executive order reviving a White House initiative on HBCUs, and a White House press release boasted at the time that the Trump administration will do more for such institutions than the nation’s first black president ever did.

But BCU students are still displeased with the selection of DeVos, taking particular issue with a recent comment she made calling HBCUs the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” a statement she corrected the following day.

“Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created because African Americans were excluded from mainstream institutions,” the petition declares, saying DeVos “has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs.”

The petition also complains about an April memo from DeVos that, according to the petition, “threatens to dismantle” income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs that many BCU students utilize to help them repay student loan debt.

“President Barack Obama’s administration offered income-based repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs. DeVos’ April 11th memo threatens to dismantle those very helpful programs,” the document asserts. “This means that lenders will not have any restrictions while attempting to collect the money that was borrowed by students.”

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Taking the matter one step further, a local NAACP chapter organized a demonstration against DeVos’s invitation Wednesday, and many students are also vowing to protest at the commencement itself, according to News 13.

BCU President Edison Jackson, however, responded to the backlash with a statement Wednesday flatly refusing to withdraw the invitation, even taking full responsibility for extending it in the first place.

“The political and racial chasms in our county have deepened, and college presidents have struggled with these issues over the past few months,” Jackson acknowledged, but added that while “some have responded by rescinding invitations to potentially controversial speakers...I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.”

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He went on to argue that the school’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, would have supported the decision to bring DeVos to commencement.

“She did all she could during the nascent stages of this institution to equip her students with the necessary skills to navigate the precarious waters of fundamental disagreement,” Jackson contends. “She modeled this by interacting with and uniquely engaging those who had to be convinced of her mission to provide education to her people.”

Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill concurred with Jackson on the importance of exposure to contrasting viewpoints, saying in a statement that DeVos is “honored” to be delivering the 2017 commencement address at BCU, and “believes that open dialogue and a willingness to work together are key to solving our nation’s most pressing issues.”

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