By Lauren Victoria Burke (NNPA Newswire Contributor)
Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU), a historically Black university in Daytona Beach, Fla., has suffered waves of sharp criticism since school officials announced that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would be the keynote speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony.
The current Education Secretary is not only a billionaire donor to President Donald Trump, but soon after she took the helm at the Department of Education, DeVos released a press release, which stated in part:
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
The statement earned a lengthy round of condemnation. First off, the statement appeared to be clueless about the basic history of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). There was very little “choice” when it came to higher education for African Americans after the Civil War. The schools were the only way African Americans could obtain a higher education. HBCUs were created after the Civil War as a way of educating freed slaves who were barred from enrolling in White colleges and universities. Colleges and universities in 17 states, mostly in the South, excluded Black students from attending. In response, the United States Congress established Black land grant institutions.
“The news is super confusing considering the pro-school-choice head of education once famously flubbed that HBCUs were the true pioneers of school choice, rather than that HBCUs were created because Blacks weren’t allowed to attend colleges and universities with Whites,” wrote Stephen Crockett of “The Root” about B-CU’s invite to DeVos.
On February 28th, HBCU presidents visited Washington, D.C. to talk to White House officials, particularly DeVos, on behalf of their schools. Many roundly panned the visit as just a photo-op, that didn’t advance the mission of HBCUs in a meaningful way.
Activist educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune started the private school in Daytona Beach, that would later become the famed HBCU, Bethune-Cookman College.
According to the school’s website: “Trudie Kibbe Reed, Ed.D. was appointed to the presidency in August 2004. Dr. Reed was the first woman to serve as president since Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and under her leadership the institution launched its first Master’s degree program in 2006 and achieved university status in 2007.”
In an interesting public relations decision, a B-CU press release on the “backlash” after the decision to invite DeVos to speak at the commencement ceremony, compared the legendary civil rights leader with Secretary DeVos.
“Dr. Bethune was non-partisan and it is our responsibility to use wisdom in advancing her mission with those that were not deemed as natural allies,” the statement read.
In an earlier statement on DeVos being invited to give the commencement address, B-CU President Dr. Edison Jackson said, “Bethune-Cookman University is a school built on the legacy and the transformation of students. Dr. Bethune’s love for students started with five little girls and grew to over 250 students during her time as university president. The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU.”
A local chapter of the NAACP is protesting the invite to DeVos by the school. Others, including some graduating students, are likely to protest the move as well.
According to a report by a local ABC-affiliate, “WFTV-9, Florida NAACP President Adora Nweze called on President Edison Jackson and board chairman Joe Petrock to resign immediately.”
WFTV-9 reported that Nweze said, “Multiple allegations have surfaced, including faculty intimidation demanding their silence or (risking) termination.”
Nweze continued: “And (there were accusations of) threats to students by potentially withholding earned degrees and fines for freedom of expression. Our partners have reviewed the university student code of conduct, and it does not contain any prohibition on peaceful protests and freedom of expression,” Nweze said. “The NAACP Volusia County Daytona Beach Branch and several attorneys will be on the ground monitoring this situation.”
Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement ceremony is scheduled for May 10, 2017 at 12pm.
Lauren Victoria Burke is a speaker, writer and political analyst. She appears on “NewsOne Now” with Roland Martin every Monday. Lauren is also a frequent contributor to the NNPA Newswire and BlackPressUSA.com. Connect with Lauren by email at [email protected] and on Twitter at @LVBurke.