Graduating students at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida were told to stop their boos and protests against its commencement speaker Betsy DeVos or have their diplomas mailed to them instead.
At the historically black college, the US Education Secretary was booed before and during her first commencement speech since taking office, which drowned out the smattering of cheers and applause, Washington Post reports.
When the screams and boos got to its loudest, the school president interrupted her speech to sternly say to the class of 2017: “If this behaviour continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
Applause followed his reprimand but not silence. Students continued their heckling throughout her speech.
Al Jazeera reports students could be heard shouting “Liar!” and “Just go” while DeVos spoke about the importance of conversing and learning from those we disagree.
“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” DeVos read from her text amid the boos and catcalls.
Bethune Cookman class of 2017 turned their backs on Betsy DeVos & I'm here for it pic.twitter.com/CsZumS10aR
— 6’7 Odogwu (@SheWantsTheVic) May 10, 2017
DeVos has met controversy ever since she was nominated as Education Secretary, mostly due to the implications her past as a supporter and financial donor to the movement that directly supports school choice and school vouchers, may have for her appointment.
Late February, the pro-choice education activist sparked outrage when she was seen as brushing off the history of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as one born out of necessity, in the face of racism. Instead, the private schools advocate described HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
The backlash that forced DeVos to acknowledge the HBCUs were born as a result of racist admissions policies. Bethune-Cookman students, alumni and activists asked the school to rescind the invitation to DeVos as a result of this, which a petition signed by tens of thousands.
But college president Edison O. Jackson wrote in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed DeVos will continue to speak at the school’s spring commencement. Students don’t benefit when they are “only limited to perspectives broadly sanctioned by a specific community,” the school president wrote.
Student protesters said while they welcome DeVos to a forum or dialogue at their school, due to her comment on HBCUs, their graduation was not the right time or venue for it.
During Wednesday’s ceremony, DeVos gave another nod to the race-tinged history of HBCUs when she took time to explain the reason for Bethune-Cookman’s birth, which was to provide access to education for Africa-American students, for which “they were otherwise unjustly denied.”
DeVos gave praise to Bethune-Cookman’s founder Mary McLeod Bethune as a person who “refused to accept systemic and repulsive racism,” and had “the courage to change old ideas.”
“I am here to demonstrate in the most direct way possible that I and the administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.”