Students at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida protested during Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ commencement address yesterday.
Bethune-Cookman is a historically black university, and DeVos’ and the Trump administration’s complicated relationship to HBCUs cast a shadow over her speech.
“She's way off the reservation in her observations about history and it has consequences,” said former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville. “People don’t forget.”
DeVos made headlines earlier this year when she said that HBCUs were “pioneers” of the school choice movement, when in reality, black students were being shut out of other institutions after the Civil War and attended them out of necessity.
“There are consequences for incompetency,” said Reville of the protests and jeers during her speech.
He said the president of the University’s choice to have her as the commencement speaker was “perfectly legitimate,” but students are also entitled to express their opinions about her past remarks.
“I think this president was probably assuming, ‘Well, forgive and forget. My students will be happy to have a leading national figure as their graduation speaker; this is prestigious’ and so forth, but the students have a deeper memory,” he said. “[They] were injured by those comments and wanted to express their dissatisfaction.”
Reville also speculated some of the student response might have been a result of the Trump administration’s shaky endorsement of federal funds for HBCUs.
The president implied a federal program that helps finance construction projects for HBCUs might not be constitutional last week. He then walked back the statement.
“The administration appears to have retreated on that [budgetary matter], but that’s a real and present threat to those institutions which historically have been precarious financially,” he said. “There are lots of reasons for the students to take that position.”
Paul Reville is a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education where he also runs the Education Redesign Lab. He was also the Secretary of Education for Massachusetts. To hear his interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above