by Mary Ellen Flannery
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A petition started this week by a Florida educator asking Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) administrators to reconsider their invitation to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deliver the keynote address at next week’s commencement has ignited a fire among alumni, students, and supporters of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs.) In its first 24 hours, it collected more than 10,000 signatures.
“The policies that DeVos pushes would have terrible consequences for future generations of Bethune-Cookman students—and for historically black colleges and universities themselves,” explains Fedrick Ingram, Florida Education Association (FEA) vice president and a B-CU alum.
These policies include a proposed federal budget that cuts millions of dollars for HBCUs and the college access programs (TRIO and GEAR UP) that help send low-income and first-generation students to HBCUs and other institutions, and also a whopping $3.9 billion from Pell Grants, which a majority of HBCU student rely on to pay for tuition. Meanwhile, the proposed budget provides no new investment in HBCUs for scholarships, technology, or facilities, as HBCU leaders and their supporters had requested.
In February, DeVos praised HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice,” a remark that had no relationship to the truth of their history. For many generations of students, HBCUs were the only choice for African-American students who faced racism and educational segregation in the U.S.
Given Secretary Betsy DeVos’ outrageous comments about Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and her long-standing antipathy towards public education, Bethune-Cookman students have a right to express their disapproval about her choice as their commencement speaker,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “The graduating students and their families deserve to mark this important milestone in their lives without distractions. I stand with the Bethune-Cookman students and their families during this time.
Bethune-Cookman was founded in Daytona Beach, Fla., by civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. Earlier this week, the B-CU President compared DeVos to Bethune favorably, saying that the Michigan billionaire, who has roundly promoted privatization and for-profit education as the answer for K12 and higher education, “resonates with the history and legacy” of Bethune.
In any case, this is not personal, Ingram told USA Today. “This is not about liking a person. This is not about ideology. This is about what is going to happen if this budget goes through as-is.”
Although DeVos will receive an honorary degree at this year’s commencement, next year, if her proposed cuts to HBCUs go through, according to Ingram, future students may not be able to stand on this stage and get their degrees. Invoking Bethune, Ingram told USA Today, “This is not what she stood for.”