Kudos to Bethune-Cookman grads

5/20/2017, 7:47 a.m.
I could not be more proud of the students at Bethune-Cookman University than if I had raised them myself. Responding ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

I 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 U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (hereafter referred to as DeVoid, as she is devoid of good sense, history, literacy and even courtesy) for the 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.

I don’t know how Ms. DeVoid came to be B-CU’s commencement speaker. I suspect that the White House and Omarosa Manigault of the Office of Public Liaison for the Trump administration made a call to offer an administration speaker and the university 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 an HBCU savior. 

Maybe there are a bunch of black Republicans on the B-CU board standing in the wings 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 10 days before the ceremony.

What was B-CU President Edison Jackson thinking? In his 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.”

Maybe President Jackson thought he was making friends by inviting Ms. DeVoid to speak at B-CU’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.

It is odious that Ms. DeVoid has received an honorary degree from B-CU. 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, Mich. 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?

We in HBCU Land 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, 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.

The low point of the commencement was the spectacle of President 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. 

If I were a member of the Bethune-Cookman 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 speaker.

We have to resist the ways that 45 and his minions like Ms. 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.

The writer is an economist, author and former president of Bennett College.