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Counting the Cost

‘Devoid’ at Bethune Cookman University: We must be the Resistance

Julianne Malveaux | 6/1/2017, midnight

I could not be more proud of the students at Bethune Cookman University than if I had raised them myself. Responding to the university’s very late selection of Betsy DeVos (hereafter referred to as DeVoid, as she is devoid of good sense, history, literacy, and even courtesy) for the spring commencement speaker, graduating seniors chose to turn their back on a woman who described HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice.” Their repudiation of her very right to be present was well coordinated. It reflects student ability to be sophisticated, not reactive when confronted with a speaker that epitomizes the very refutation of their HBCU education. It is my hope and dream that these students can continue to operate in formation as they oppose oppression.

I don’t know how DeVoid came to be BCU’s commencement speaker. I suspect that the White House (Omorosa) made a call to offer an administration speaker, and they went for it. Maybe Trump Whisperer Manigault’s new hubby, Florida Rev. John Allen Newman, has some ties to the college and he saw this as a way of burnishing wifey’s credentials as HBCU savior. Maybe there are a bunch of Black Republicans on the BCU Board standing in the wings and hoping for goodies from 45. Truly, this is all speculation, but most of the time commencement speakers are secured months before graduation. This speaker was thrust on students and their families just 10 days before the ceremony.

For most students, speakers are the sideshow, not the main deal in commencement, unless the speaker is someone like President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, or Viola Davis. White folks might prefer Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Wolf Blitzer or Sheryl Sandberg. Commencement speakers are expected to spout uplifting platitudes, offer sage advice, maybe share a private challenge, and wish the graduates well and do it in less than 20 minutes. Students are sitting at the edge of their seats not because they are waiting for the punch line, but because they want their degrees.

What was Bethune Cookman University President Edison Jackson thinking? In his printed statement on May 1, he said “The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU. Moreover, students are directly impacted by funding dollars that are dispersed through the Department of Education. BCU receives $4 million annually through Title III, which supports teaching, research and infrastructure. Additionally, Title IV impacts the ability of BCU students to receive federal financial aid, overall influencing the ascension of Bethune-Cookman University students.”

Maybe President Jackson thought he was making friends by inviting DeVoid to speak at BCU’s graduation. Actually, he made a spectacle of the graduation by inviting a woman who had already disparaged HBCUs with her ignorance. And he did it in the same week when her boss, 45, said (and then quickly reversed himself) that he was not sure that some federal provisions for HBCUs, such as the HBCU Capital Finance Program, are constitutional.