Students at a university in Florida booed and jeered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she tried to speak during their graduation ceremony Wednesday.
Bethune-Cookman University President Edison Jackson warned students to be quiet, to little effect.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he told students at the commencement ceremony in Daytona Beach.
Bethune-Cookman traces its history to 1904 and is one of the oldest institutions among U.S. historically black colleges and universities — schools where African-American students make up a large proportion of the student body.
Boos rang out before DeVos stepped to a podium to speak Wednesday, but she began by telling the hundreds of students she hoped they could disagree respectfully.
“Let’s choose to hear one another out,” DeVos said, reading her prepared text in a measured tone despite continuing waves of boos, catcalls and scattered applause.
Protests continued even after Jackson demanded an end to the demonstration. Many of the graduates stood and turned their backs to DeVos as she spoke — about half of the nearly 400 people receiving degrees this term, according to reports from the scene.
Opposition to nomination
DeVos’ conservative Republican background and strong views on educational policy attracted strong opposition when President Donald Trump named her to his Cabinet this year. Many African-Americans objected to her comment during Senate confirmation hearings that historically black colleges were the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” — a reference to her belief that parents and students in the American system of public education should be able to choose between state-run elementary and secondary schools and alternative schools sponsored by churches or other nonpublic groups supported by public funds.
African-American educators and students said DeVos’ views were misdirected, because historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, became established as a response to systems of racial segregation widely practiced in the United States during the first half of the 20th century and earlier.
The HBCUs, protesters said, were “born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism.”
Jackson, Bethune-Cookman’s president, had been accused of selling out the school by offering DeVos an honorary doctoral degree and inviting her to address the student body.
Protesters delivered a petition signed by thousands of people urging the university to revoke the invitation to the education secretary, but Jackson refused.