DeVos Bethune Cook­man Com­mence­ment protested

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By ALICE B. LLOYD

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fl. - In the con­tem­po­rary cam­pus cli­mate,A law that re­defin­inglovely stretch when from the lat­ter half of April to abor­tion­s­the first blush­can beof May peris also con­tro­ver­sial com­mence­ment speaker sea­son.

The most con­tested, in a year in which her raked-over con­fir­ma­tion pro­ceed­ings gar­nered out­size news cov­er­age, will prob­a­bly be Betsy DeVos—who's sched­uled to ad­dress grad­u­ates next week at BethuneCook­man Univer­sity in Day­tona Beach, Florida, a his­tor­i­cally black col­lege.

The of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment on Mon­day that DeVos would ad­dress Bethune-Cook­man's grad­u­at­ing class—by then "one of the worst kept se­crets in Day­tona Beach"—met a still­mount­ing push­back. Crit­ics con­tend the sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion's sup­port for school choice and stu­dent loan dereg­u­la­tion puts her at odds with the school's beloved name­sake: ed­u­ca­tor and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune fa­mously founded a girls' school—that would be­come a women's col­lege, and then a co-ed school—from hum­ble be­gin­nings with just five stu­dents, pid­dling funds, and a brave vi­sion.

A pe­ti­tion to dis­in­vite DeVos has pre­dictably sur­passed its 5,000-sig­na­ture goal. The pe­ti­tion in­vokes an early fum­ble of the sec­re­tary's: In a pre­pared state­ment mark­ing the meet­ing of 80 HBCU chan­cel­lors and pres­i­dents, she said, "HBCUs are real pi­o­neers when it comes to school choice." De­part­ment staffers were quick to ac­knowl­edge the er­ror in link­ing these schools, founded when all others barred AfricanAmer­i­can stu­dents, to a brand of ed­u­ca­tion re­form that pro­motes par­ents' free­dom to send their chil­dren to the K-12 school of their choice—adding that HBCUs were "born, not out of mere choice, but out of ne­ces­sity, in the face of racism." (Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Se­nate's chief HBCU ad­vo­cate, ac­knowl­edged the gaffe at a press con­fer­ence the fol­low­ing day, say­ing sim­ply, "Clar­ity in your state­ments is al­ways im­por­tant.")

Some hic­cup was bound to over­shadow the sig­nif­i­cance of 80 HBCU pres­i­dents meet­ing at the White House and on Capi­tol Hill, where these lead­ers, un­de­terred, made their case for a $25 bil­lion in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment and the restora­tion of year-round Pell grants. And they wel­comed a burst of pub­lic at­ten­tion to HBCU ad­vo­cacy, even amid dis­trac­tions seem­ingly typ­i­cal of the Trump tran­si­tion: DeVos's state­ment and a vi­ral snap­shot of Kellyanne Conway perched on a sofa in the Oval Of­fice just af­ter hav­ing pho­tographed the HBCU pres­i­dents stand­ing with Trump.

There was more to that day than met the pub­lic eye. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., pres­i­dent of the Thur­good Mar­shall Col­lege Fund, a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion sup­port­ing and rep­re­sent­ing HBCUs, told me he re­ceived con­fir­ma­tion Thurs­day from the White House's Do­mes­tic Pol­icy Of­fice that one of the col­lege pres­i­dents' two big "asks" would be granted—all be­cause of the Fe­bru­ary meet­ings. The pres­i­dent's com­pre­hen­sive bud­get pro­posal for next year, ex­pected this month, will in­clude funding for year­round Pell grants. Restor­ing sum­mer Pell, which Congress ap­proved al­ready for this year's bud­get, is a big win for HBCUs and their stu­dents, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately low-in­come. And, "It was specif­i­cally a re­sult of our work," Taylor said, de­scrib­ing con­sul­ta­tions with White House do­mes­tic pol­icy aide Ja'Ron Smith, af­ter the Fe­bru­ary meet­ings, about the cru­cial im­por­tance of Pell grants.

Bethune-Cook­man pres­i­dent Dr. Edi­son O. Jack­son in­vited Sec­re­tary DeVos to speak at com­mence­ment right then and there at the White House meet­ing, I'm told. And, at some point since, she ac­cepted, de­spite the in­evitable con­tro­versy. "I give her credit for be­ing will­ing to go into a sit­u­a­tion you know is go­ing to be met with some de­gree of hos­til­ity," Taylor said. "It's not like Barack Obama walk­ing into More­house."

Whether the White House's ef­forts will make a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence in these schools' in­sti­tu­tional health and longevity re­mains to be seen. HBCUs and their funding and main­te­nance needs, unique within higher ed­u­ca­tion, are too of­ten mis­un­der­stood—if they're known at all. Many strug­gle to re­tain stu­dents and keep up grad­u­a­tion rates at na­tion­ally com­pet­i­tive lev­els. And Trump-era at­ten­tion to HBCU ad­vo­cacy has con­spic­u­ously con­trasted a com­pli­cated low-point of his pre­de­ces­sor's legacy.

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