BY HANK REICHMAN
Yesterday I posted the first in a series of posts on the free speech rights of invited campus speakers. I fully expected to devote much of today to preparing the next installment. But this morning Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University, an historically black institution in Daytona Beach, Florida, and, to put it mildly, the graduates weren’t pleased. It therefore seems appropriate to turn first to a separate discussion of this incident, which no doubt will be spun by some as yet another example of intolerant students exercising a heckler’s veto to stomp on the free speech rights of yet another conservative speaker.
The reality, I think, is rather different. For one thing, as video of the event makes clear, while repeatedly interrupted, DeVos completed her speech and was able to be heard. She was heckled, to be sure, but the hecklers — and the large portion of the graduates and others in attendance who simply turned their backs on DeVos — exercised no heckler’s veto.
Here’s the background:
On May 1, the university announced that DeVos would be the school’s commencement speaker. Earlier this year DeVos called HBCUs “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” a remark she was forced to walk back after protests. In fact, of course, those colleges were founded as the only option for students, when other colleges were still legally segregated. In announcing the invitation, Bethune-Cookman’s president, Edison O. Jackson, said DeVos’s “mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy” of Mary McLeod Bethune, the college’s founder.
Students and alumni did not agree, and they quickly began to organize opposition to the choice. The university was soon compelled to release a second announcement in response to widespread blowback. This time, President Jackson invoked academic freedom. “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community,” he wrote.
Dominik Whitehead, a 2010 graduate of Bethune-Cookman working as a community organizer and political activist, started a petition online. He said he grew up hearing about the school’s founder, activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, whose legacy is honored there. He said he didn’t object to DeVos coming to campus to speak, but felt she was the wrong person to represent the school at commencement.
“Do not use Bethune-Cookman as a photo op,” he said yesterday, shortly before delivering petitions to the administration building. “Come to the table with something that is going to actually do something, in terms of policy, funding.”
The NAACP Florida State Conference called on DeVos to decline the invitation and for President Jackson and Board of Trustees Chair Joe Petrock to resign. If she speaks and is given an honorary degree, it would be insulting to minorities, women and all communities of color, Adora Obi Nweze, the NAACP Florida State Conference president, said in a written statement.
People are outraged, added Fedrick Ingram, vice president of the Florida Education Association and an alumnus of the school. Ninety percent of students who attend Bethune-Cookman were educated in public schools, he said. “This is a woman who throughout her ‘career’ has condemned public schools, has said these are dead-end schools.”
“DeVos, a white woman born into wealth, is using Bethune’s legacy as a self-made Black woman born into poverty to push her school choice fiasco,” wrote Sil Lai Abrams, author of Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity, on Twitter.
In the end, 50,000 digital signatures were collected on three different petitions protesting the appearance.
According to the Washington Post‘s report, today
Graduates came into the auditorium smiling, many with flowers and other decorations plastered on their mortar boards, and listened to the ceremony politely, until university President Edison Jackson introduced Omarosa Manigault, an adviser to Trump. Students started booing. Jackson stopped, then said: “You don’t know her. You don’t know her story.”
They booed loudly as he introduced DeVos to give her an honorary doctorate as well. When she began speaking, thanking Jackson, the auditorium erupted with boos. DeVos had to raise her voice as she thanked the moms attending the ceremony.
About half the 380 graduates turned their backs on her. Shouts continued as she spoke loudly, saying that one of the hallmarks of higher education and democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom they disagree.
According to a report on National Public Radio, Jackson interrupted DeVos early in her talk to address the crowd response.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” Jackson threatened. “Choose which way you want to go.”
The faculty and staff on stage stood several minutes in silence before the jeers from the crowd had ebbed enough to proceed.
Still, some of the graduates made their choice known — loudly. Perhaps no louder than when DeVos promised to go to the grave site of Mary McLeod Bethune later in the day to pay her respects, a promise nearly drowned out by the sounds of shouting.
In the end, though, the boos gradually subsided and DeVos concluded her prepared remarks — though not before she delivered a few more pointed comments on difference and understanding.
What are we to make of this disruption? Even if DeVos was able in the end to deliver her address, did the protesting students go too far? The problem is rendered more complex by the fact that this was a commencement address. As I have previously argued, such addresses differ in important respects from other events involving outside speakers. A commencement speaker is not an ordinary campus speaker. Those invited are often given some honor, usually a symbolic degree, as was DeVos, and even if this is not the case their appearance carries the positive imprimatur of the institution in a way that other speaking engagements do not. The words uttered by commencement speakers are therefore in effect provided a sort of official stamp of approval that would not normally be the case for those invited during the school year by an academic program or a student group. In addition, commencement is not a classroom or a traditional forum for debate; it is a celebration of the graduates and their achievements and speaker choices should recognize that. On ordinary occasions when an objectionable speaker comes to campus, students who disagree can boycott the speech or peacefully protest the talk outside. But is it fair to ask them to boycott or demonstrate outside their own commencement?
“Graduation is a really big deal for our kids and for their families,” the grandmother of one Bethune-Cookman graduate commented to the website Politic365. “That spotlight should be on them and not on the controversy of the speaker that has been invited.” Her name is Evelyn Bethune, the granddaughter of the college’s founder.
The main way to address this problem is to democratize the choice of speaker. Indeed, many student objections to commencement speakers are directed as much at an authoritarian selection process as at the speaker. If a speaker has been selected by a representative committee composed of graduates, faculty members, and, perhaps, alumni, or if the speaker is selected by a vote of the graduates, as is the case at some schools, the likelihood and legitimacy of protest will be greatly diminished. But at Bethune-Cookman this was not the case. The speaker was chosen solely by President Jackson, presumably with the support of his board, and, in effect, imposed on the graduates. Given the controversial nature of Jackson’s choice, the response is hardly surprising. For the graduates the issue did not involve free speech, but respect for this once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage in their lives.
President Jackson’s appeal to academic freedom is also not without irony, if it is not entirely disingenuous. For Bethune-Cookman has been on the AAUP’s list of institutions censured for violations of academic freedom since 2011. The censure stemmed from the dismissal in 2009 of seven faculty members. According to the October 2010 investigation report published by Committee A,
Two of these professors had been granted tenure; four others were untenured but with at least seven years of full-time service. Four of them were undisputed cases of dismissal for cause; the actions in the three other cases were tantamount to dismissals. The stated reasons for the dismissals ranged from charges of sexual harassment of students to insufficient academic credentials to a necessity to reduce the size of the faculty for financial reasons.
The report documents in considerable detail each of these cases. The investigating committee “found a pervasive atmosphere at B-CU that was repressive of academic freedom” and “aggravated by underlying administrative efforts to co-opt faculty responsibility for grading.” The committee concluded that several of the dismissals were based on hearsay and anonymous reports, that the institution failed to provide even a modicum of due process, and that claims of financial difficulty were unsubstantiated and insufficient to justify termination of faculty. The committee also concluded:
A pervasive atmosphere currently exists at Bethune-Cookman University in which the administration supports favorites and ignores or punishes those who fall out of favor or who question, contend, or appeal. No adequate mechanism or procedure exists for the impartial or balanced hearing of grievances. In instances critical to the protection of academic freedom and tenure, the university has no published procedures, and where it does, the administration has often failed to follow them. What may be valid grounds for an action becomes so clouded by persuasive claims of administration animus that the truth cannot be determined. The resulting climate of doubt leaves faculty members wondering which claims or rumors to believe and what might happen to them if they are not careful. The chilling effect on academic freedom is evident.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a rightfully honored American hero. The institution she founded has a noble tradition and its graduates continue to contribute to their communities and to achieve success in life. But the institution’s current professed commitment to academic freedom and free speech rings hollow in light of both the AAUP censure and President Jackson’s unilateral decision to foist upon this year’s graduating class a speaker who, in practice, has repeatedly stood against what both the university and its founder have stood for.
Betsy DeVos has the right to speak at colleges and universities. When she appears those who find her policies and views offensive (count me among them) should protest, but she should be allowed to speak. Nevertheless, Bethune-Cookman was wrong to make her the commencement speaker. And the graduates, alumni and others were right to object.
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