Hundreds of graduating seniors of a historically black university in Florida booed and turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she stood up to deliver a commencement speech today.
“Let’s choose to hear each other out,” DeVos said, straining to be heard above the crowd at Bethune-Cookman University’s graduation in Daytona Beach. “We can choose to listen, be respectful and continue to learn from each other’s experience.”
But most of the students remained with their backs turned as the crowd applauded. University President Edison O. Jackson took the podium and tried to quiet the crowd, threatening to end the graduation. “Your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
Many — although not all of the students — eventually took their seats. One man was escorted out by security.
DeVos stressed she was eager to engage especially with those who disagreed with her. She pledged the Trump administration’s commitment to historically black colleges and universities, citing a recent proposal to restore funding for year-round Pell grants as one example.
“I am at the table fighting on your behalf, and on behalf of all students across this great nation,” she said.
DeVos also noted that she planned to visit Mary McLeod Bethune’s home and grave to pay her respects, which the crowd booed.
Before DeVos took the podium, Jackson recognized another Trump administration attendee, senior policy director Omarosa Manigault, who was also booed. Jackson warned attendees: “Ladies and gentleman, please, you don’t know her, nor do you know her story.”
The university’s invitation asking DeVos to speak at the graduation has snowballed into a major controversy with the NAACP in Florida calling on Jackson to resign and teachers’ unions gathering thousands of signatures in opposition.
The ceremony comes just days after the Trump administration seemed to question the constitutionality of a federal financing program for HBCUs in his signing statement on the budget — an approach generally used by presidents to flag provisions they might disregard. Trump on Sunday walked back that challenge and restated his “unwavering support” for the colleges.