Twitter users flooded timelines yesterday (May 10) with praise for the many new graduates of Bethune-Cookman University who reacted to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos‘ commencement speech with boos and turned backs.
As The New York Times reports, DeVos’ planned speech at the Daytona Beach, Florida, institution prompted outrage ahead of yesterday’s ceremony. Alumnus Dominik Whitehead circulated a petition, with more than 8,500 signees as of press time, demanding university president Dr. Edison Jackson cancel DeVos’ speech. Whitehead’s appeal cites DeVos’ assertion earlier this year that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Bethune-Cookman are "real pioneers when it comes to school choice"—a policy many education advocates say damages public school infrastructure at the expense of students of color.
"Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created in response to the exclusion of African Americans from mainstream institutions," Whitehead wrote in the petition. "Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions and significance of HBCUs."
Jackson responded to critics in a statement on May 1, referencing school founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune‘s legacy to make his point:
Dr. Bethune depended upon the support of people who were scattered all along the ideological and political spectrum—some she agreed with, and some she did not. She understood, however, the great value of education, and she understood the nuances of how to balance delicate and difficult relationships in order to achieve her ultimate goal of building an institution of higher learning, of which we are the beneficiaries today. … Perhaps Secretary DeVos, much like those early initial skeptics that Dr. Bethune invited to visit and speak on this campus, will be inspired by the profound work that occurs here with our students.
That message did not convince many students and community members, who The Chronicle of Higher Education reports gathered outside the commencement venue, protesting the Trump-appointed secretary of education with signs baring messages like "No to DeVos."
But the protests only started there. CNN reports that graduates booed as Jackson presented DeVos with an honorary degree. CNN’s video (below) of DeVos’ subsequent speech shows many members of the graduating class turning away from her and booing:
Jackson tried to dissuade the protesting students with a warning: "If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go." Most of the protesters did not heed his words and continued standing.
Black social media users expressed solidarity and lampooned Jackson and DeVos in tweets like the following seven:
Dear students of #BethuneCookman: this scholar is very proud of your resistance and your integrity. Congratulations on your graduation.
— wikipedia brown (@eveewing) May 10, 2017
We are Bethune-Cookman University. And best believe Mary taught us well. pic.twitter.com/mi8fFoao3D
— $murf (@smurfresh) May 10, 2017
Shoutout to the #BethuneCookman graduates. Ya’ll are the real MVP’s
— Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin) May 11, 2017
I stand with #bethunecookman students who turned their backs on #BetsyDeVos . I would make NO donations 2my school if she spoke at my grad https://t.co/rp4w8V7Okt
— Shanita Hubbard (@msshanitarenee) May 11, 2017
#HBCU #BlackTwitter #BCU President earns crying Jordan#BethuneCookman pic.twitter.com/RsH3RdFjSL
— Horace Towns (@thehoracetowns) May 11, 2017
*Betsy Devos attempts to give commencement speech*
Bethune Cookman’s graduating class: pic.twitter.com/M4zZuV9Lf4
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) May 10, 2017
They turned their backs on the sunken place. #bethunecookman #betseydevos #sunkenplace #getout #PodsInColor #PodernFamily pic.twitter.com/APqWytpr8S
— NamingIt (@NamingItPodcast) May 11, 2017
The university has not yet issued a statement following the ceremony.