Following the recent announcement that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would be delivering the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, many expressed outrage.
This included sisters Taylor and Tyler Durrant — graduating seniors at the HBCU — who say that the selection is both “insulting” and “embarrassing.”
The 22-year-old identical twin sisters have been protesting DeVos’ upcoming speech since they first learned about the news on social media, just days shy of their May 10 ceremony.
The Durrant sisters say that their disappointment wasn’t just laser focused on the school’s questionable selection for commencement speaker, but also at the comparison the university made between DeVos and their founder, Mary McLeod Bethune.
In a statement sent to students, Bethune-Cookman writes, “Much like Dr. Bethune, Founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience.”
“Dr. Bethune was a maverick and so when my university goes to the extent to make comparisons, there are none,” Tyler Durrant said.
The sisters also expressed their concern around Secretary DeVos’ claim to committing support to many students like themselves, who come from a low-income community. Especially considering the recent efforts that the U.S. Secretary has taken to end the Education Department’s work on reforming loan servicing.
“The U.S. Secretary of Education is someone who has never known what it is like to have financial aid. … she is someone who has been rich all her life. She doesn’t know what going through the public education system means and what it can do to a student,” Taylor Durrant told ESSENCE.
Secretary DeVos, who was sworn-in earlier this year, was recently criticized for her commentary around HBCUs, which she celebrated as “pioneers of choice.” However, her message didn’t come off quite well on social media; DeVos failed to acknowledge that these institutions were often the only choice for many Black students.
DeVos became a controversial figure prior to her swearing in for a variety of reasons, mainly because the billionaire Michigan fundraiser has no previous educational experience. In addition, her confirmation has become a bit suspicious as she has personally donated nearly $2.5 million dollars to the Republican Party and over the years, her family has contributed more than $950,000.
“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.
The Office of the President of Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Edison O. Jackson, declined requests to speak to ESSENCE for this story. However, the University sent a statement offering an opportunity to ask questions during a press conference, as “questions will be answered at that time.”
Shortly after the announcement, Dr. Jackson wrote an op-ed in The Orlando Sentinel defending the decision.
“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.”
“When we 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,” Dr. Jackson wrote.
In his op-ed, Dr. 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.”
However, Tyler Durrant argues that her senior graduation simply is not the right time to invite such a controversial figure to speak during their ceremony.
“There were many occasions when she could have come,” Durrant said.
Her advice for Secretary DeVos is to “go to the social student gatherings where it can be a dialogue and not a monologue. Because it shouldn’t be a monologue at my commencement.”
Despite the University announcing this year’s commencement speaker nearly a week shy of the actual ceremony, many have protested the selection. Dominik Whitehead, an alumnus of Bethune-Cookman, started an online petition that garnered more than 5,000 signatures shortly after being posted last week.
According to USA Today, a second petition was created by a leader of the Florida Education Association and endorsed by the USA’s largest teachers unions.
Whitehead, who is a two-time HBCU graduate, says that his disappointment in his alma mater’s selection and as HBCUs as a whole is one centered around the lack of sensitivity. “It sends a mix message and it becomes tone-deaf,” he said.
The Durrant sisters, who say that they will still attend their graduation ceremony despite their distaste, advise DeVos to “do research and definitely study.”
“And make sure that when you get up there and deliver this speech that you don’t confuse [us] again, for pioneers of choice.”