On Wednesday, historically Black university Bethune-Cookman acquired national attention after U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered their commencement speech.
Shortly after the University made the announcement — less than two weeks shy of their graduation ceremony —students and alumni began to petition the University to withdraw DeVos as their speaker.
Two-time HBCU alumnus Dominik Whitehead spearheaded one of the online petitions that garnered more than 5,000 signatures within just a few days of its creation. Whitehead shared with ESSENCE how the selection of the speaker at his alma mater “sends a mix message and it becomes tone-deaf.”
Recent graduates Taylor and Tyler Durrant, who are 22-year-old identical twins, told ESSENCE that they found the selection both “insulting” and “embarrassing.”
“I think it’s just a slap in the face to understand now that we’re being sold … our legacy is being sold,” Tyler Durrant told ESSENCE about her skepticism of her soon-to-be alma mater’s motives to invite the U.S. Secretary to speak during their graduation.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Daytona Beach-based historically Black college founded nearly 150 years ago:
Educator-civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, founded Bethune-Cookman University. According to University’s website, Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50, faith in God and five little girls: Lena, Lucille, and Ruth Warren, Anna Geiger and Celest Jackson.
During their 2017 commencement ceremony, the University honored Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick L. Henry with an honorary Doctor of Law degree. Henry, who was re-elected last year, made history as the second African-American to serve as the city’s mayor.
On May 10, Secretary DeVos delivered the commencement speech, which was drowned with boos from the audience. The day before her speech, protesters delivered more than 50,000 signatures ― collected throughChange.org, Color of Change and Florida Education Association ― to the school’s leaders, pressuring them to rescind DeVos’ invitation.
Following her speech, DeVos said she had ‘respect’ for the students for attended the ceremony including those who ‘demonstrated their disagreement.’
Last October, Former U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attended their homecoming. The University shared the photos on their social media showing the former U.S. Secretary of state praying with University faculty members.
Dr. Edison O. Jackson –who became the university’s sixth president in March 2013 — asked for “courtesy of your consideration to hear what Betsy DeVos, the 11th U.S. secretary of education, tells us. Remember that dialogue is a two-way street.”
Shortly after the announcement, Dr. Jackson wrote an op-ed in The Orlando Sentinel saying that “ at the end of the day, it really is all about the success of our students, and if there are opportunities to possibly influence their success, then we must seize upon them. DeVos presents such an opportunity.”
In addition to the NAACP Florida State Conference calling on the University President Dr. Jackson to resign, the organization is also suggesting that Board Chairman Dr. Joe Petrock resign as well, according to The Grio.
“Since our initial public outcry last week, multiple allegations have surfaced including faculty intimidation demanding their silence or risk termination and threats to students by potentially withholding earned degrees and fines for freedom of expression … this contrasts the public statements of university administration who opposes suppressing voices by welcoming U.S. Education Secretary DeVos but lends indirect support to these actions against faculty and students,” the chapter said in a statement.