Fifty thousand signatures on protest petitions. Calls on the president of the university to resign. People on Twitter saying they're mailing back their degrees.
It's probably not what the leadership of Bethune-Cookman University was expecting when they announced their speaker for today's commencement ceremony. But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to bring a unique level of controversy almost everywhere she goes. And that's especially true when it comes to historically black colleges like Bethune-Cookman.
Earlier this year, DeVos called HBCUs "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," a remark she was forced to walk back after protests; in fact, these colleges were founded as the only option for students, when other colleges were still legally segregated. Just this week, DeVos found herself clarifying comments by President Trump that seemed to suggest that a key form of funding for HBCUs might be unconstitutional.
In announcing the invitation last week, Bethune-Cookman's president, Edison O. Jackson, said DeVos' "mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy" of Mary McLeod Bethune, the college's founder.
Trinice McNally holds both a bachelor's and master's degree from BCU. She said that she and many other alumni "were outraged" both by the invitation and by the allusion to Bethune's legacy. "It's a complete insult. There is no comparison."
Rachel Gilmer is with the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based progressive-leaning youth organization that is among the many groups on and off campus organizing against DeVos. "This is a person who's planning to privatize our schools. They're planning to gut many of the steps taken to protect student borrowers by Obama ... she has made it clear in her words and her actions that she doesn't care about the futures of black people."
BCU did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NPR. The school has been active on social media, posting a picture of empty cardboard boxes on Twitter with the hashtag "#Deception?" — presumably referring to the petition drive — and posting a video on Facebook Live.
On the same day that it announced DeVos, May 1, the university released a second announcement in response to the widespread blowback. This time, President Jackson invoked academic freedom. "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."
Protests of speakers, particularly conservative speakers, have raged lately on campuses from the University of California, Berkeley to Middlebury College in Vermont. They have sometimes turned violent, and sparked a heated debate about free speech and modes of dissent. DeVos, meanwhile, often encounters protesters and is the first education secretary to receive security protection from the U.S. Marshals Service.
Commencement speakers, though, are more commonly chosen for celebration and uplift than for provocative messages. (See NPR Ed's Commencement Speeches app for some examples.)
"Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and for their families," as the grandmother of one Bethune-Cookman graduate commented to the website Politic365. "That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited." Her name? Evelyn Bethune. She's the granddaughter of the college's founder.
Organizers would not say whether any disruption of the speech is planned Wednesday. Dream Defenders and other groups are using the hashtag #BackstoBetsy online. "I hope they take a stand," McNally said of the new graduates.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today, the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is giving the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University. It's a small, private, Christian historically black college in Daytona Beach. This invitation has sparked an outcry, and let's talk about why with Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. She's on the line. Anya, good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So let's talk about how this came about, Betsy DeVos being invited to give this commencement address.
KAMENETZ: Well, we don't know exactly why the president of the university, Edison O. Jackson, extended this invite, but he's made various different statements online. And he talked about the need to acquaint his students with various diverse viewpoints and to defend academic freedom. He's also interestingly invoked the college's founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who back at the turn of the century cultivated many wealthy white donors, including the robber barons of the time.
GREENE: I guess it's worth stepping back and asking why it would be odd for this college to invite Betsy DeVos. And it goes back to some things that she said about historically black colleges and universities, trying to tie them to the school choice movement. She said they're living proof that more options are provided to students, they're afforded greater access and greater quality, but some people had real problems with that.
KAMENETZ: Right. So if this were any other education secretary, her invitation to be completely unremarkable. But back in February, you know, school choice is Secretary DeVos's number one concern. And in seeking to sort of tie the school choice movement to HBCUs, she really skipped over a very major point in the history of HBCUs which is, of course, that they were founded during the time the college were legally segregated.
So they weren't - they don't represent choice. They represent in some ways the absence of choice. And that's not the only comment around HBCUs that the secretary's had to walk back. So it kind of adds up to a situation where a lot of advocates feel like it's - she doesn't have a concern. She has such a poor touch with the African-American community that it feels like an insult almost.
GREENE: Because these schools, I mean, come from a legacy of racism, and she was saying they came from a legacy of choice. And a lot of people thought that she just didn't get it.
GREENE: Well, what is the reaction now that she has been invited to speak at an historically black college?
KAMENETZ: Well, they delayed the announcement until May 1. And in that brief time since it came out, more than 50,000 people have signed petitions against it. The NAACP in Florida has called on the president of the university to resign. One alumna told me that people are really outraged. They feel that it's an insult to the legacy of the founder of the college. People are worried.
You know, they talked about DeVos's record on, you know, possibly favoring school choice and private schools over public education, her - some of the statements and policies she's put out about student loans are meaningful to this group because that - many of them are borrowers. One current student told me, you know, how can she relate to us? She has no experience in common with us.
GREENE: I suppose, I mean, this is an opportunity for her to address a lot of this stuff that's swirling, but what do we expect will happen? What are we going to see when she actually - what kind of reception will she get?
KAMENETZ: Well, the organizers wouldn't tell me exactly what they're planning, but they are using the hashtag #backstoBetsy on Twitter. And so perhaps that's a signal of what they may be planning.
GREENE: Almost turning their backs to her while she's giving this speech potentially?
KAMENETZ: Well, we'll see. We'll see. They were notably silent on the line when I asked, what exactly are you planning today?
GREENE: Notably silent, I guess that that is silence that might tell you something. OK, will be an interesting speech to watch and follow. Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.