Students at Bethune-Cookman University booed, cat-called and turned their backs on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos while she delivered a commencement speech to graduates at the Florida school.
Students at the historically black university have for weeks protested DeVos’ scheduled appearance, including garnering thousands of signatures on a petition to replace her as graduation speaker.
DeVos, in her keynote address, praised the school’s founder, educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, as someone who “refused to accept systematic and repulsive racism.”
Over boos and scattered applause, she called on students to give back via personal or public service.
“All that is required for world-shaking change is your conscious and courageous decision to serve,” she said. “Your path here was shaped by others – educators, parents, family members, neighbors and friends. Never forget that. Through serving others, you can extend that legacy.”
The longtime Republican fundraiser-turned-education secretary angered many earlier this year with her remarks calling historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) ”pioneers of school choice,” as well as, the misspelling of African-American civil rights activists W.E.B. Du Bois.
Historically black colleges were founded prior to 1964 when segregation prevented blacks from attending most colleges and universities in the country.
Following criticism, DeVos acknowledged that these colleges were “born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism.”
In a statement following Monday’s ceremony, DeVos described “the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree” as one of the hallmarks of higher education.
“I have respect for all those who attended, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me,” she said. “While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs.”