BY HANK REICHMAN
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered a commencement speech at the University of Baltimore yesterday, sparking protests from students, faculty, and members of the community. According to the Baltimore Sun, “Several dozen graduates slowly rose in protest as she spoke. First, two women in the front row — including one whose graduation cap read “#Not my commencement speaker” — stood and turned away from DeVos. Soon more graduates and audience members joined their ranks. Multiple graduates raised their fists. One faculty member joined the demonstration from on stage.” Students booed loudly as she was introduced, but remained mostly silent throughout her speech.
Outside the event, students and a few professors staged a small protest, chanting, “Education is a right, not just for the rich and the white.” “We don’t feel the secretary of education represents the best interests of this college or the students who go to it,” said writing professor Marion Winik, who skipped the ceremony in protest.
When the university announced in September that DeVos would be the fall commencement speaker, student government leaders spoke out against the choice. Mariame Dangnokho, the Student Government Association president, wrote in a letter to students that the SGA was not involved in the discussion about bringing DeVos to speak. Signatures were gathered on a petition opposing the choice and dozens of students walked out of class and rallied to protest the decision. “UB is a place that supports social justice, and students consistently fight for what is right in the Baltimore community,” the petition read. “Ms. DeVos seems to go against the very core of so many of UB’s values and makes our mission statement look to be a mockery.” The petition, which said it would welcome DeVos to a debate at the university, but not an event as significant and personal to students as commencement, collected 3,257 signatures. At the rally former NAACP President Ben Jealous told the students, “”Your graduation-day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of your school and highest aspirations of the students. Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public-education secretary of education our country has ever had.”
In March, DeVos delivered a commencement address at Bethune-Cooke University, a historically Black college in Florida. Students there turned their backs to DeVos. Her talk was also interrupted by hecklers, but she completed her address. Only a couple months earlier, DeVos said historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were “the real pioneers of school choice,” a statement condemned by the NAACP for being a “painful display of a fundamental misunderstanding of the tragic history of race and education in America.”
The University of Baltimore has a large number of Black students. In 2015, 42 percent of University of Baltimore students were Black, compared to six percent of all college freshman and 15 percent of college-age Americans. White students comprise a minority (40.8%) at the school. 54% of undergraduates receive need-based financial aid. The student body includes many adult learners, with a good proportion of the graduates in their 30s or even 40s.
Hence, it was, perhaps, a bit tone-deaf for DeVos to tell the graduates, “Our culture seems to promote the idea of a sheltered life, free of hardship. This siren song tempts us to always take the easy road or path of least resistance, but real life isn’t like that, is it? … The path of a real and full life is like the path of success: It’s long, it’s gritty, and it’s sometimes painful. It requires resilience, perseverance and sacrifice. Those are words we don’t hear often.” One suspects that many, if not most or even all of the graduates already knew this from their own experiences and the lives of their families and friends.
DeVos also touched on debates about campus free speech and, as Think Progress put it, “essentially told students to speak less often and less loudly, or, in her terms, more ‘thoughtfully.’” Here’s a bit of what she told the graduates: “There is plenty of talking, but I’d suggest there is not nearly enough listening. … Your new knowledge and skills helped to broaden horizons and confront realities you might not have previously anticipated. This gives rise to a new voice full of ideas. But with that comes with it an inherent responsibility to be considerate and careful in the exchange of ideas. Sometimes exchange requires raising your voice above the noise, but more often it requires embracing the power of silence.”
“Too many assume that those who are the loudest are leaders and those who stay quiet are followers,” she continued. “But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot embrace this paradox of silence. We will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak to genuinely engage those with whom we disagree. Voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength, while those who rush to shout are humbled.”
Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the university and former mayor of Baltimore, reached out to DeVos in January and she confirmed in February that she could do the speech. Schmoke said he didn’t make an announcement until September because of “logistical issues related to the fall commencement.”
“The university stands for freedom of speech,” Schmoke said in September. “My bottom line conclusion is the university stands for debate on controversial issues. I do feel that having the U.S. Secretary of Education on our campus is something that’s very important for the university, and in the long run, I believe that students will recognize that whether they agree with her position on issues or not.”
Many students said they were disappointed DeVos would be speaking to them on their graduation day. Having her at the ceremony is “raining on our parade,” said graduate Carlisa Bydume. Students said they wouldn’t have been opposed to DeVos’ visiting campus for a panel discussion or other event, but commencement was not the proper venue.
I agree. As I have previously argued, commencement 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, and even if this is not the case, as at UB, 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 sanction 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?
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. Given the controversial nature of Schmoke’s choice, the response was hardly surprising. For many graduates the issue did not involve free speech, but respect for this once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage in their lives.
“A commencement speech is supposed to be inspiring,” said Devon Washington, 26, who was one of the first two women to rise. “UB didn’t want to be inspired by her.”