Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump's Education Secretary DeVos Presents Commencement Address at Bethune-Cookman University: Things Do Not Go Well for Her

Mr. Trump's Secretary of Education (and right-wing Christian activist) Betsy DeVos was the commencement speaker yesterday at the historically black United Methodist university founded by Mary McLeod Bethune, Bethune-Cookman University. Things did not go well.

As the video clip from Time magazine at the head of the posting indicates, many members of the university's graduating class booed throughout DeVos' commencement address and turned their backs on her. The school's president Edison Jackson threatened to shut down the commencement exercises if the students did not shut up, though two days ago Jackson and the school's board chair Joseph Petrock published an article in the local paper stating,

Furthermore, please be assured that far from what has been falsely claimed by the NAACP, Bethune-Cookman University has not threatened its faculty, staff or students. In fact, as an academic community, we encourage free and open expression among our students, faculty, and staff.

Unfortunately, as video clips now shared worldwide via Twitter and media reports demonstrate, Dr. Jackson did, in fact, threaten Bethune-Cookman students yesterday when they protested Ms. DeVos. The whole world heard him tell them that he would shut down the commencement exercises and mail them their diplomas if they did not quieten down.

This is a story that has, as I say, now gone worldwide. Yesterday, as DeVos was speaking and students were booing her, I saw a tweet from an Austrian news service stating that the number one phrase being googled in Austria at the moment was "Bethune-Cookman." The story is now everywhere, and it's dismal news for the B-CU administration: it's in Time (see above), NY Times, USA Today, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher EducationWashington PostInside Higher EducationNPR, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Los Angeles TimesThe Guardian (London), you name it. There is a burgeoning and lively Twitter thread about the incident, full of video clips from on the spot, some of them showing that, when the students began their protest, second-tier adminstrators sitting behind the first row of big muckety-mucks, stood to applaud the students, at which point the muckety-mucks in the first row stood up to hide their colleagues who were applauding the students.

This is not the kind of publicity HBCUs, which struggle to make ends meet and receive respect from the society at large, covet. It is publicity that the leaders of an HBCU can avert by, well, not making the astonishing decision to invite the likes of Ms. DeVos to be a commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree, and then refusing to listen to the hue and cry of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the general public who are furious once such a decision has been made.

As Erica Green reports in the New York Times article linked above, Ms. DeVos ended her catastrophic address to non-receptive Bethune-Cookman students yesterday by saying, 

"The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger," she said. "But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mind-set of grace."

And isn't that nice: a "mind-set of grace"? Avoid the "chorus of conflict," you black college graduates, and avoid making your voice louder, your point bigger, and your position stronger.

This is classic conservative white Christianity preaching at black folks — as it has done from the period of slavery forward — to sit down, shut up, be meek, be obedient. And call it "grace."

This is classic conservative white Christianity suppressing justifiable social discontent and social protest, which exposes the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Christian preacher himself or herself. Ms. DeVos dares to chide the B-CU students about being conflictual when her whole life has been built on conflict with an American educational system that is not under the direct thumb of the right-wing white Christian church.

She has used her considerable wealth — billions and billions of dollars — to seed conflict trying to destroy American public education in the name of "school choice," to serve her agenda of placing public education under the thumb of the right-wing white Christian church. And as she uses her money in this way, she appears oblivious to the fact that backing her political activism with billions of right-wing dollars used to pursue right-wing causes is the very essence of "making your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger."

Ms. DeVos preached to the B-CU students that they should do as she says but not as she does. She preached galling hypocrisy. They were smart enough, well-educated enough, to see right through her hypocrisy — and that of the administration of their college, which pays lip service to the ideals of Mary McLeod Bethune while trampling all over those ideals.

They were not having any of it, and I say bully for them.

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