Black students matter: Black university sides with establishment

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos recently gave a commencement speech at historically black Bethune-Cookman University.

Of course, Devos has little in common with the University’s namesake, Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was a school teacher before she became a civil rights activist.

Devos has never been a teacher and has used her wealth to gain influence in education. Mary McLeod Bethune created schools for black students where there weren’t any.

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HBCUs gave Black students, particularly in the south, the opportunity to receive a higher education, while the major state universities remained segregated until the early 1960s. Still, Devos called HBCUs “pioneers of school choice,” when it’s clear the only other choice for Black people was not to attend college.

 

In addition, the Trump administration has questioned the constitutionality of funding HBCUs and gathered the presidents of those colleges for a meaningless and embarrassing photo op. However, those are not even the most important parts of why she should not have been selected.

It seems that the administration at Bethune-Cookman has forgotten what commencement is about and whom it serves.

University President Edison O. Jackson defended the selection of Devos, stating 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.” 

While I am in general agreement with Jackson, he picked the wrong venue to spark this type of dialogue. He and the administration had 4 years or more to expose these students to differing viewpoints, waiting until they have one foot out of the door makes little sense.

Nearly 60,000 students and member of the BCU community signed a petition to prevent Devos from speaking at their commencement. Jackson seemingly did not understand that the ceremony is not for him or his agenda to expose the students to a wide range of viewpoints.

Graduation ceremonies are celebrations of student accomplishment not a recognition of donors. 

Trust me, Universities have plenty of events for the latter purpose.

Graduation speakers should reflect the hopes, dreams, and desires of the student body. They should be inspirational figures that remind students of their preparation to tackle the challenges that await them. 

It is not a time to stoke controversy or debate.

The selection of Devos was more than a simple error on the part of Bethune-Cookman University. It reflects a major disconnect with students. It tells them that the university is centered around money not people.

In essence, it says that the wants and desires of black people, especially students, don't matter in the face of green dollars and white power.

Needless to say the students protested by turning their backs to Ms. Devos, and the families and friends of the graduates, replete with flowers and congratulatory balloons booed loudly.

The saddest part is that this situation could have been avoided had the administration at BCU had the proper foresight. Those families, some of whom showed up to watch the first of their relatives to graduate college, instead had to watch a political protest.

That event was not one that motivated the young, grade school aged, primarily black children in attendance to desire that day for themselves. Most of all, It soured a momentous occasion in these young people’s lives.

The customary smiles and excitement were replaced by frowns disappointment and betrayal.

Many people choose HBCUs because of the nurturing family-like environment that students of color often do not find at a predominately white institution.

Many of the people I know who attended HBCUs describe it as home. 

The administration of Bethune-Cookman gave a stranger the keys to the student’s home, if only for a day.

Jason Nichols is a full-time faculty member in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland College Park. His writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun.


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