ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shouldn’t speak at historically black Bethune-Cookman University’s graduation next week because she will bring controversy to a sacred moment for students and their families, a granddaughter of the college’s founder says.
DeVos, who on Monday accepted an invitation to give the keynote address for the May 10 commencement, was criticized in February when she said historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice. Her comments seemed to ignore the fact that the institutions were founded to give African-Americans educational opportunities denied them because of discrimination and racial segregation.
DeVos, a West Michigan native who has been an outspoken champion of vouchers for charter and private schools, later backtracked on those comments.
Bethune-Cookman officials said Monday that DeVos’ mission “to empower parents and students” resonates with the legacy of the school’s founder.
Florida NAACP leader Adora Obi Nweze has called the invitation to Bethune-Cookman a “slap in the face,” and a former student at the Daytona Beach college launched a petition drive to rescind the invitation.
Evelyn Bethune, granddaughter of school founder Mary McLeod Bethune, said a commencement is the wrong forum for DeVos because it should be a “very sacred ceremony.”
“Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and for their families,” said Bethune, who graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1979 and whose grandson will graduate with a master’s degree next week. “That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited.”
Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of the college who now works as a political action representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, launched a petition drive on Change.org to rescind the invitation, collecting more than 5,400 signatures by Wednesday.
“It’s very tone deaf, not only to the students of the university and its supporters, but I think it’s tone deaf to African Americans,” Whitehead said.
The school responded to criticism earlier this week in a brief statement via Twitter, saying “there are similarities in everyone” and “we need to find common ground.”
Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson, who did not respond to request for comment from The Associated Press, acknowledged that there are issues with DeVos in an Op-Ed piece in the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday, but he vowed not to shy away from controversial speakers just as Mary McLeod Bethune did not during the early years of the university.
“I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community,” Jackson wrote.
Still, Evelyn Bethune takes exception to school administrators comparing the work of her grandmother to what DeVos stands for today. She said her grandmother was a strong proponent of education while being able to relate to common people.
“I don’t see any of that in Ms. DeVos,” said Bethune, who still lives in Daytona Beach and heads up an educational foundation and education consulting firm. “I’ve looked at her history, I’ve looked at the things that she has been connected to and I don’t see any resemblance to anything related to my grandmother.”