could not be more proud of the students at Bethune Cookman University
than if I had raised them myself. Responding to the University’s
very late selection of Betsy DeVos (hereafter referred to as DeVoid,
as she is devoid of good sense, history, literacy, and even courtesy)
for the spring commencement speaker, graduating seniors chose to turn
their back on a woman who described HBCUs as “pioneers of
school choice”. Their repudiation of her very right to be
present was well coordinated. It reflects student ability to be
sophisticated, not reactive when confronted with a speaker that
epitomizes the very refutation of their HBCU education. It is my
hope and dream that these students can continue to operate in
formation as they oppose oppression.
don’t know how DeVoid came to be BCU’s commencement
speaker. I suspect that the White House (Omorosa) made a call to
offer an administration speaker and they went for it. Maybe Trump
Whisperer Manigault’s new hubby, Florida Rev. John Allen
Newman, has some ties to the college and he saw this as a way of
burnishing wifey’s credentials as HBCU savior. Maybe there are
a bunch of Black Republicans on the BCU Board standing in the wings
and hoping for goodies from 45. Truly, this is all speculation, but
most of the time commencement speakers are secured months before
graduation. This speaker was thrust on students and their families
just ten days before the ceremony.
most students, speakers are the sideshow, not the main deal in
commencement, unless the speaker is someone like President Barack
Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, or Viola Davis. White folks
might prefer Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Wolf Blitzer or Sheryl
Sandberg. Commencement speakers are expected to spout uplifting
platitudes, offer sage advice, maybe share a private challenge, and
wish the graduates well and do it in less than 20 minutes. Students
are sitting at the edge of their seats not because they are waiting
for the punch line, but because they want their degrees.
was Bethune Cookman University President Edison Jackson thinking? In
his printed statement on May 1, he said “The legacy of Dr.
Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but
worked across all parties to support B-CU. Moreover, students are
directly impacted by funding dollars that are dispersed through the
Department of Education. B-CU receives $4 million annually through
Title III, which supports teaching, research and infrastructure.
Additionally, Title IV impacts the ability of B-CU students to
receive federal financial aid, overall influencing the ascension of
Bethune-Cookman University students”.
President Jackson thought he was making friends by inviting DeVoid to
speak at BCU’s graduation. Actually, he made a spectacle of
the graduation by inviting a woman who had already disparaged HBCUs
with her ignorance. And he did it in the same week when her boss,
45, said (and then quickly reversed himself) that he was not sure
that some federal provisions for HBCUs, such as the HBCU Capital
Finance Program, are constitutional.
is odious that DeVoid has received an honorary degree from BCU. What
has she done to earn it? According to President Jackson, “Through
Secretary DeVos’ life work, her contributions extend far beyond
her home state of Michigan. Secretary DeVos has supported educational
opportunities for students in over 25 states and supported Central
Florida through several philanthropic efforts: 100 Black Men of
Central Florida; Jones High School, and the Parramore neighborhood
located in Orlando to name a few. Secretary DeVos is a graduate of
Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. She is the wife of community
activist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Dick DeVos, where they
have four adult children and six grandchildren.” This earns
her an honorary degree? Really?
reached out to President Edison Jackson and several members of his
team to discuss this. I’ve been to Bethune Cookman University
twice under President Jackson’s leadership and know, all too
well, what kinds of pressures that HBCU Presidents face as they
juggle constituencies – faculty, students, alumni, community,
trustees and many others. He might have found himself stuck between
a rock and a hard place when he invited DeVoid. Or he may have
welcomed the opportunity.
in HBCU Land (my special term for our space) play ourselves cheap.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Georgetown, and
Stanford aren’t rushing to give Betsy DeVoid honorary degrees.
They don’t think she deserves them. The woman with a simple
undergraduate degree from the unremarkable Calvin College (yes, my
elitism is showing), whose only contribution to the education arena
is her rabid embrace of school choice, should not get an honorary
degree from anywhere. Unfortunately, Bethune Cookman University was
first in line to debase itself by offering a degree to DeVoid.
insulted the BCU community by recounting Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s
life story as part of her commencement speech. How dare she tell us
about ourselves in a way to attempt to endear us to her? Betsy
DeVoid, you are no Mary McLeod Bethune. You can go to her gravesite,
but you can’t channel her energy. Don’t get it twisted.
low point of the BCU commencement was the spectacle of President
Edison Jackson chiding his students because they had the integrity to
protest the presence of Ms. DeVoid. He is their leader, their guru,
their mentor. He should not have threatened his students, but
instead offered them, and Ms. DeVoid, a series of palliative
statements designed to honor the protest spirit of Dr. Bethune, and
the awkwardness of the moment. Had I been a scolded student, I would
have felt slimed. Had I been understood, I might have felt
I were a member of the Bethune Cookman University class of 2017, I
would contribute, for the next few years, to a fund that supports
student activists. I’d find a classmate to run the fund
outside the confines of the university. I’d support the fund
because I support my college, but not an administration that insults
the best day of our college career with an odious and repugnant
have to resist the ways that 45 and his minions like Omorosa
Manigault are pimping HBCUs. “Woke” Black people have to
be aggressive in our financial support of HBCUs, and indifferent to
the disingenuous overtures that would bring a devoid presence like
Betsy DeVos to an HBCU campus.