Trailed by a steady stream of jeers and protests, US education secretary Betsy DeVos gave a commencement speech at the historically black school Bethune-Cookman University today, asking graduates to be accepting of outside views and to rise to the challenge of service within their communities.
“While we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully,” DeVos said to open her speech. “Let’s choose to hear one another out,” she said over the chaotic din of students in the audience booing repeatedly, mixed with university officials’ futile attempts to counteract their protests with adamant clapping.
Her speech—as well as her introduction by university officials—was interrupted multiple times by thunderous objection from the crowd of graduates, many of whom also voiced their anger on the university’s Facebook page in the days prior. One student described (paywall) her invitation to the school as “a slap in the face.”
Fifty thousand petition signatures and multiple cries for university administrators’ resignations had followed DeVos to the historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, pointing out her controversial appointment, her lack of experience in public education, her status as a wealthy white woman, and the Trump administration’s broader attitude of dismissiveness toward historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs) as reasons that made her unfit to be the school’s graduation speaker.
“I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to, and support for, HBCUs and the students they serve. Please know this. We support you and will continue to support you,” DeVos added. She spoke about her respect for the university’s founder Mary McLeod Bethune (during which the booing intensified) and her plans to visit Bethune’s grave later that day (which prompted further outcry).
Before her speech, DeVos was also given an honorary degree by the school. Receiving the award, she said she is “honored to be a Wildcat”—leading to the loudest jeers of all.