A week after President Donald Trump suggested his administration might cut $25 million in capital funding to historically black colleges and universities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Bethune-Cookman University’s class of 2017 that she “is fully committed to your success” — a line that was met by deafening boos from the students and guests.
DeVos’s commencement address for the Daytona Beach, Florida, school underlined the complicated relationship between the Trump administration and HBCUs, which educate roughly one in five black undergraduates. Her speech, in which she urged students to “embrace serving others with grace,” was repeatedly interrupted by loud booing; at one point, students turned their backs on the secretary. Omarosa Manigault, the former star of “The Apprentice” who has become Trump’s ambassador to black communities, was also jeered.
After last week’s threat of a funding cut, both the White House and DeVos issued statements reaffirming their commitment to HBCUs, and the school defended its choice by noting that it receives $4 million from the Education Department. In announcing DeVos as commencement speaker last week, the school compared her to its founder, civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, saying that DeVos’s “mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune.”
Students appeared to reject the comparison, booing loudly every time DeVos referenced Bethune, which awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Thousands of people around the country had signed a petition asking the school to rescind its invitation, calling it an “insult” to the graduating class. Dozens of protesters stood outside the off-campus graduation venue holding placards reading "Grads Yes, DeVos No."
DeVos, who favors allowing parents to use public money to choose among public, charter and private schools, had referred to HBCUs as “pioneers” in school choice, when in fact the schools were created for the most part after the Civil War to educate black students, who were barred from white institutions. Today, they tend to have far fewer resources than other schools.
Students were upset by the choice of DeVos, said Petra Merrick, a graduating senior who was editor of the college newspaper for the past two years. “You don’t even know the history of HBCUs, how are you going to encourage us for the future,” she said.
University President Edison Jackson in a statement, said “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with.” He added that the college doesn’t endorse any political perspective; the school’s founder “depended upon support of people who were scattered all along the ideological and political spectrum.”
In February, Trump met with leaders of about 60 HBCUs, who asked for a greater share of government research contracts and continued funding for infrastructure.
Trump moved oversight of the schools from the Education Department to the White House, raising their profile, but didn’t accept their request to set quotas for the awarding of government research contracts. In his budget sent to Congress, Trump left the proposed funding for HBCUs unchanged at about $492 million.
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