My alma mater, Bethune-Cookman, a historically black university in Florida, has invited U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deliver this year’s commencement speech and receive an honorary degree. But the policies DeVos pushes would have terrible consequences for future generations of Bethune-Cookman students – and for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) themselves.
Bethune-Cookman has historically served students from challenged backgrounds, with the lion’s share of these students coming from public schools throughout America. But DeVos is no fan of public education, calling our public schools a “dead end,” and using millions of dollars of her family fortune to promote private school vouchers; unregulated, for-profit charter schools; and other policies that defund, destabilize, and privatize the public schools our communities rely on.
DeVos’ ideology and advocacy are especially harmful to Black students – the very students Bethune-Cookman and other HBCUs were created to serve. The recent budget proposed by President Trump and DeVos would slash billions of dollars in federal funding for programs that help students of color reach, attend, and graduate from college.
Graduates of Bethune-Cookman’s School of Education understand the value and importance of public education, and overwhelmingly return to teach in public schools – a path I took myself after graduation.
And it’s not just DeVos’ antipathy to public education or willingness to slash resources HBCUs rely on that raise concerns about this invitation; it’s also her seeming indifference to the history and role of HBCUs in the first place. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman to provide African-American students with the opportunity to receive the highest level of academic quality at a time when black students were refused entrance into colleges and universities across America.
But on Feb. 28 of this year, DeVos released the following statement after meeting with presidents and chancellors of HBCUs at the White House:
“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. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
At best, this is an outrageous assertion that black students had opportunities to study where they chose; at worst, this is a failed attempt to use HBCUs to push an educational reform movement that continues to disenfranchise children throughout this country, especially in DeVos’ home state of Michigan and specifically in Detroit.
I’m joining fellow alumni and current students in demanding that Bethune-Cookman University no longer welcome Betsy DeVos to deliver the commencement speech and instead invite someone who truly values education and understands the importance of HBCUs.
The students graduating this year and their families deserve to celebrate their achievement without controversy – and future generations deserve the opportunity to attend high-quality public schools and reach for their dreams at institutions like Bethune-Cookman.
Inviting Betsy DeVos creates an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction for students who have worked hard to earn a degree, and elevating DeVos and her radical ideas threatens the future of public education and the vision and mission of Bethune-Cookman and all HBCUs nationwide.
Fedrick Ingram is an alumnus from Bethune-Cookman University. After college, he became a high school music teacher and band director. He currently serves as a vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers and is president of the United Teachers of Dade. This op-ed was distributed by Color of Change.