On May 10, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement address to the 2017 graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University. It was a difficult moment for botBetsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman May 2017h Ms. DeVos and for the graduating class. And contrary to what you’ll read in other media, the difficulty of this moment  lies purely on the shoulders of Ms. DeVos and University President, Edison Jackson.

According to the Daily Beast, the students played no role in her selection and students found out she would speak from the news media before the university notified the graduating class. There were petitions and letters and calls for President Jackson to resign and/or  cancel Ms. DeVos’ speech. He did neither and her speech went forward and the graduating class voiced their displeasure.

So why were the students right? Because since her confirmation, Ms. DeVos has not shown herself to be a friend of any higher education institution.

1. In March, the Department of Education denied grant applications from at least 40 colleges and universities, totaling $10 million because the applications were incorrectly formatted. What were the formatting errors?  Wrong font or lack of double spacing. These grants were intended to help young people from poor families prepare for college. The program that funds these grants, Upward Bound, was established 50 years ago and was identified for elimination in President Trump’s recent budget submission.  After pressure from Congress, Ms. DeVos announced that future applications will not be rejected because of formatting errors, but those applications already rejected will NOT be reconsidered. The problem is the next round of applications won’t be held for another five years, and some of the affected schools and groups say their Upward Bound programs may have to shut down. This program supports high school students from low-income families; and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.

2. On April 11, 2017, Ms. DeVos withdrew three policy letters from the previous administration that provided consumer protection to student loan borrowers. This is good news for Navient, the nation’s largest student loan company, who is being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for “failing borrowers at every stage of repayment” and cheating borrowers out of as much as $4 billion.  Her memo legally allows Navient to return to the predatory practices of the past – the ones they’re being sued for.

There are other incidents in Ms. DeVos short tenure at the Department of Education, but these two items alone show that Ms. DeVos was no friend to those in that commencement audience because they were the ones being negatively impacted by her policies. But there’s more to it than that.

Ms. DeVos has confused school choice with school segregation. Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) weren’t founded as voluntary “choice.” They were founded because segregated America systematically denied higher education opportunities to African-Americans.  Now the President appears to put a caveat on federal funds used by HBCU colleges to obtain low-cost construction loans when he signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act.   The graduating class is right to question why Ms. DeVos was being given a “photo-op” when she clearly doesn’t understand the history of HBCU and has demonstrated she isn’t willing to listen.

Ms. DeVos got her “photo op” and an honorary doctorate from a HBCU. It’s something I’m sure she’ll value on her résumé. I’m not sure what Bethune-Cookman University (or any HBCU) gets out of Ms. DeVos’ speech, but it won’t be a seat at the table as President Jackson may have hoped. Ms. DeVos’ speech made that very clear. She is the one at the table; the best HBCU can hope for is an ear and the last 90 days have demonstrated that the ear is deaf.

When you honor people for their status as oppose to honoring them for their actions, you send the wrong message. The graduating students knew that. Too bad President Jackson didn’t find that out until after Ms. DeVos spoke.

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2 Responses to The Graduates of Bethune-Cookman had the Right Idea about Betsy DeVos

  1. Gwen Neale says:

    I applauded the actions of the students, too. I’m not a fan of Mrs. Devos, not only because she lacks qualification for the job, but also because of her audacity in taking the job. The president at Bethune-Cookman, hopefully, learned from this moment.

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