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Betsy DeVos Commencement Speech Rivals Reality TV - People's Politics
Written by JoAnn Chateau

Bethune-Cookman University is a small, private, historically black university located in Daytona Beach, Florida. The university president, Edison O. Jackson, invited Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to give the commencement address at yesterday’s graduation ceremony. It was not a popular decision with the student body.

A roar of protest ensued.

Whatever Kind of Misguided Motivation…?

Now I am no fan of Betsy DeVos. And I applaud the student protesters. At the same time, my focus is captured by the question: Given the blundering “alternative” statements DeVos has made about black higher educationwhy in the world would President Jackson invite Betsy DeVos to present the 2017 commencement speech at his school???

Surely there were multitudes of more worthy, more inspiring, and more appropriate candidates who were available to address the graduating class of 2017. Not only did the DeVos choice stir students to righteous wrath, it put her in a humiliating situation.

From the other side, I understand why DeVos accepted the gig. She needs to clean up her PR with black educational institutions. Hey… maybe she offered to give the commencement speech. And maybe President Jackson expects a favor in return — for the students, naturally. (Out of sheer wonderment, I merely speculate.)

We may never know exactly how the DeVos commencement speech came about, but President Jackson did make an official statement at the beginning of May:

“One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore, and experience that which we deem as ‘other’… When we seek to shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas… We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social, and racial silos.” ~ Edison O. Jackson, Bethune-Cookman University

You have to admit, Jackson’s words sound pretty good. But why wait to the last day of school to create such a rich learning experience?

DeVos Commencement Speech Competes with Reality TV

Below, the Daytona Beach News Journal captures the commencement fracas on video. When DeVos reached the podium, vigorous booing immediately sounded. Students stood and turned their backs on her. Two and a half minutes in, a school representative tried to interrupt the booing with loud prayer over the audio system. DeVos could no longer be heard. Soon, students were bellowing support to fellow-protesters being dragged from the auditorium by security officers.

Four minutes in, DeVos resumes speaking. She is again drowned out by loud booing. Throughout the nearly ten-minute video, DeVos strains to speak over a continuous dull roar coming from the audience.

The video is painful to watch. At the same time, it is riveting how the student body expressed strong disrespect and disgust with a seething, yet self-controlled, nonviolent protest. Simply put, the DeVos commencement address rivals the most degrading Reality TV.

If you’d like to hear what DeVos actually said to Bethune-Cookman graduates, the FOX 10 video of the event (below) effectively mutes the booing and provides clear audio of her words. You also get to see President Jackson go to her aid, standing at her side while threatening the students in order to quiet them down.

Despite all the fracas, DeVos was able to finish her prepared speech. What a trooper! If only her public education philosophy wasn’t backwards, upside-down, and inside-out. If only she knew the history of racial segregation and comprehended the gnarly deep roots that feed present-day American racism.

Vive La Résistance!

About the author

JoAnn Chateau

JoAnn Chateau likes progressive politics and loves the canines. She sometimes writes fiction about Chester (the Alpha Bichon) and his friends -- with a dash of humor and dab of Poli-Sci. JoAnn's views and insights are tinted by her past profession in Counseling, Christian theological studies, and Library and Information Science training. Retired now, JoAnn enjoys the creative life.


  • As our President to has encouraged a simple example of anger and bigotry in his staged rallies, it is no surprise that many of these college students simply modeled such boorish behavior . I think shoving Betsy DeVos down the throats of this apparently well-informed student. body was wrong in the first place.

    • Good point. Our President sets a bad, even dangerous, example.

      I’m sure the students will learn from their protest experience and the various feedback they receive. I give them credit for standing up for their rights.

      You know who has the classiest protests? Code Pink. They disrupt, interject wit, and know when to leave (often under arrest, for which they come prepared). Of course, they are professional activists.

  • I wouldn’t call them foolish. Naive perhaps, but very brave. Young people have often changed the world. Bernie is not my hero, However, had he won the nomination I would have voted for him over Trump. He is great in Congress and needed there. But I personally feel he helped divide the Democratic Party and continues to do so. I’ve had issues with Sanders since the 70’s when he wrote sexist articles in underground newspapers that I subscribed to. But to each his/her own. Now Elizabeth Warren? She is worthy of hero worship, in my opinion.

  • It was an absurd move to ask Devos to speak at the school. It makes me wonder if she is donating money to the college??? In any case, these students should have had a dynamic, motivating speaker to encourage them on to future that involves truth, justice, and making a difference in society. To have to sit and listen to a woman who has never been an educator or involved in a public educational system based on equality and the rights of all students, is insulting.
    I taught for 36 years in the Broward County school system. I would be bothered if Devos spoke at any meeting held by the school board. This women is a cancer to our public school system and to our nation. It was the legal right of every student there to protest. At their young age, I might have protested as well. (Today I would have been angry, but I would not have booed.) I Most likely would have walked out while she was speaking. But, I would definatly have felt betrayed by the school for inviting her. Having had two sons graduate college with honors, I would have been insulted and furious if this woman had been invited to speak at the University of Florida or University of Central Florida where my hard earned teacher salary saved money so my children could get a higher education. To have that day ruined by a woman given a job when she had no experience, and who is against public education, speak to the student body and their parents was disrespectful. She is offensive to my profession, to my principles, and to my children who needed academic scholarships to attend University.
    No, I do not fault the students. Likewise, I do not fault Devos for attempting to communicate with the students. She was asked and therefore her desire to speak was, I assume, genuine. But, I blame the administration for trying to impose this person on the students and their parents. This was supposed to be a wonderful graduation day to culminated the hard work these young people accomplished. It would be like asking a member of the KKK to speak at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. A seriously bad move. This was a terrible decision on the part of the college. The students, who I am proud of for standing up for their legal right to protest without creating a riot, did what they felt was right. Good for them. Devos is clueless not only about education, but for thinking she had anything in the way of experience, to offer these young people to help them succeed in the future. What advice could she possibly give them? That thought is laughable. What on earth was the college thinking???

    • Thanks for stating your viewpoint, Leslie. I hope the students found their courageous, disciplined protest salvaged Graduation Day for them. And yes, maybe parents were booing along with them – I hope so!

  • As a retired high school educator, JoAnn, I was appalled and dismayed by the student behavior at this commencement exercise. Most of Trump’s cabinet is a bad joke – as epitomized by Betsy Devos. However, the protest should have been staged outside. It was a childish display and I would have walked out if my child were among the undisciplined brats who made spectacles of themselves. They actually made Devos look good. Of course, the “monkey see, monkey do” effect will undoubtedly manifest itself in other commencement exercises. I hope I’m wrong.

    • John, I do not agree with you. My late husband and I were both career public school teachers. I do not think the students were out of line. And your comment in quotes in this volatile political environment would be considered racist. (Although I know you did not mean it to be so.) This was not the place for Devos. If she proves herself in her new position, perhaps in the future she will be able to speak and earn respect. However, right now, her lack of credibility or experience in the educational field excludes her from being the keynote speaker at a college graduation. The students exercised their legal right and did not become unruly. For all we know, the parents could have been booing as well.

      • We’ll agree to disagree. I do agree that Devos should not have been invited there in the first place. However, turning a graduation exercise into a circus to the point where the university President felt compelled to interrupt the speaker and threaten the graduates, is not defensible. Judging by the facial expressions of the faculty and staff behind the speaker, they did not support the student behavior either.

      • Had I been a faculty member there and on the stage, I would have been embarrassed and my demeanor as an employee of the University would have displayed decorum. However, if were a parent or student I would have been outraged. Many of these people worked multiple jobs to send their children to this school. Their reaction is understandable. I live in South Florida. I know the school system well down here and in retirement I write curriculum for a spoken word poetry network which includes students in all areas of Florida. Trust me when I say that Devos is NOT well received down here. I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they invited her.. It was unrealistic to assume students and their families would accept her with open arms. I think considering the political climate in multicultural , progressive South Florida, their reaction to her was very mild. Had it happened further South where immigration is a threat, school funding declining, and racism tripled Since 45 has been in office, violence would have certainly ensued.

    • Yes, and the students’ determination to keep on booing was certainly noteworthy. To me, the episode didn’t exactly make DeVos look good by comparison, but I did feel sorry for her.

      But then, I wasn’t too upset when Black Lives Matter affiliates stole the podium from Bernie Sanders last summer, and Bernie is my hero.

      I suspect the majority of protesting students had to muster up a lot of courage, based on conviction, to do what they did. They will certainly experience negative consequences for their trouble. At the least, most of their parents will be furious!

      Only the foolish have what it takes to try to change the world. God bless them.

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