It takes a lot to be one of the most controversial members of the Trump administration, but Betsy DeVos has done it. The inexperienced education secretary’s nomination came the closest to being blocked by Congress, and for her views and political connections she has been the repeated target of protests. Many consider the extreme version of school choice she champions to be outdated and damaging to lower-income families, and her policies regarding disabilities and student debt have not endeared her to the larger public.
And then there was this gaffe from February, a statement DeVos made after meeting with leaders from historically black colleges and universities: “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”
HBCUs were created as a response to the segregated Jim Crow education system that violently punished black students who attempted to enroll in white colleges and universities. And so her tone-deaf statement, while ostensibly celebrating HCBUs, suggested, at best, an insensitivity to issues of racial inequality in education.
That may explain, in part, why on Wednesday DeVos was drowned out by loud booing when she attempted to give a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida.
At the commencement, shown in the video above, DeVos opens her speech by thanking the university for “this great honor and privilege.” Almost as soon as she starts speaking, people begin shouting. Within 10 seconds of her speech, the shouting becomes disruptively loud. Fifteen seconds in, and it sounds like an entire stadium of people jeering and shouting. When the camera pans to the crowd, many students are standing, holding signs of protest or turning their backs to the stage.
At some point, when DeVos takes a pause, the president of the university, Edison Jackson, takes the microphone and appears to search for a threat he can viably make to a roomful of people who already finished their degrees. “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose, choose which way you want to go.” In response, the students shout louder.
Another video shows DeVos, who was given an honorary doctorate from Bethune-Cookman, saying later in her speech that she planned to visit the grave of the school’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. It didn’t go over well.
According to the Washington Post, the students had started booing first when Jackson introduced White House aide and former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault. Jackson gave the students their first admonition.
The protests over DeVos had been inescapable, however. Ever since students at the college had learned of her invitation, they had been fighting it. NPR reports that protest petitions garnered 50,000 signatures, and others (including the NAACP Florida State Conference) had called on the president of the university to resign.