Like other college graduating seniors, Tyler Durrant circled the date on her calendar when she would put on her cap and gown to receive the diploma she worked hard to earn.
Durrant and scores of other students and alumni have been fighting to make May 10, the date of Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement ceremony, a memorable day. For them that includes convincing the university’s administration to rescind its keynote speaker invitation to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
On Tuesday, a group of protesters marched to the Daytona, Florida campus and delivered a petition that they said has 59,215 signatures to the university’s administration, urging officials to disinvite the controversial education secretary.
The protests come as the White House flip flopped on funding HBCUs, sparking outrage after Donald Trump called it “unconstitutional.” He later released a statement pledging his support for HBCUS, noting DeVos’ speech at Bethune-Cookman.
“Secretary DeVos chose an HBCU as the venue for her first commencement address to demonstrate my Administration’s dedication to these great institutions of higher learning,” the statement reads. But not everyone believes the president is dedicated to HBCUs.
Bethune-Cookman protest organizer Dominik Whitehead told NewsOne that the group presented the petition to an administration staff member, who told them that Bethune-Cookman President Dr. Edison O. Jackson was unavailable to meet with them.
Whitehead, a 2010 graduate, said students, alumni and supporters are planning to demonstrate peacefully outside the ceremony if DeVos delivers the commencement address.
Trinice McNally, an alumni activist, told NewsOne that the graduating class of this significant HBCU “has the opportunity to inspire positive social change that has historically advanced the rights of many oppressed groups.”
She added: “Today they will exercise their right and responsibility to fight against injustice, and overall, the insult of DeVos speaking at commencement. They have the support of thousands across the country, and we have done our best to mobilize them in a way that’s effective and strategic. In the words of one of the greatest freedom fighters of all time, ‘Give light and people will find the way.’ I believe that today, they will find truly find their way.”
NewsOne contacted Bethune-Cookman for comments but did not immediately receive a response.
The petition circulated online through Change.org, Color of Change, and the Florida Education Association. It lists several grievances against DeVos, such as her lack of knowledge about the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
DeVos, a school choice advocate, sparked outrage when she called HBCUs “pioneers of school choice.” She was apparently uninformed about the historic fact Jim Crow laws barred African-Americans from attending traditionally White institutions.
The petition also says she “weakened consumer protection for student loan borrowers,” a reference to DeVos’ decision to roll back Obama-era rules to help prevent student loan defaults.
The petitioners say they don’t want Bethune-Cookman to become another “photo op for the Trump administration.” Many in the HBCU community are still fuming over what they say was President Donald Trump exploiting dozens of HBCU presidents for a White House photo-op, to create the impression that he cares about the future of Black institutions of higher learning.
Bethune-Cookman released a letter from Jackson to the university’s community shortly after the backlash began. The president said he understands their concern but believes it’s beneficial for them to hear a diversity of views—including those with whom they may disagree.
Durrant told NewsOne that there’s a time and place to hear DeVos’ views and engage in dialogue with her, but the commencement ceremony is neither time nor place.
“I’m opposed to Betsy DeVos doing the commencement address because I imaged someone speaking who embodies the characteristics of the university,” said Durrant, a political science major who signed the petition.
Durrant added: “DeVos will give a monologue. She’s a controversial political figure who will overshadow the graduating class and push an agenda. I want someone who works in the community and can relate to me. She doesn’t know anything about HBCUs. I want someone who will inspire me to serve the community. Now I’m sitting in anxiety and confusion.”
The Riviera Beach, Florida native, who plans to one day become mayor of her hometown, said there’s fear across the campus community. Many are worried about repercussions for signing the petition.
Meanwhile, the Florida chapter of the NAACP is calling on Bethune-Cookman’s president and Board of Trustee Chairman Joe Petrock to resign. The organization said there are “multiple allegations” that the university is intimidating faculty and students if they protest DeVos.
Sean P. Jackson, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, told NewsOne that he has yet to hear a logical reason for the opposition to DeVos.
There’s a common criticism among many that Trump and DeVos intend to destroy the public education system by diverting resources to charter school expansion.
“Betsy DeVos is not on a mission to destroy public schools,” Jackson protested. “It’s her mission to help children, minority children, who lack opportunity. Her mission is to give them a fighting chance in the ailing public school system.”
Jackson said he’s indirectly connected to the university, through his mother, who is an alumna, and other close family members.
“They are disheartened,” said Jackson, a Trump supporter who believes the president sincerely wants to connect with the Black community. “My family is saying people should have a chance to show themselves approved.”
This tumult comes as the president takes fire for implying that implementing a federal program to help HBCUs finance construction projects is unconstitutional. He issued a statement on Sunday pledging his “unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”