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Controversy Commences at Bethune-Cookman

Bethune-Cookman University rocketed to the forefront of conversation about commencement speakers this spring with the announcement Monday that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would headline its event in Daytona Beach, Fla., next week.

“Much like Dr. Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience,” Dr. Edison Jackson, president of the historically Black institution, said in a statement Monday. “Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune.”

Well, others beg to differ. An online petition demanding that the DeVos invitation be repealed and replaced with one to another speaker had over 3,500 digital signatures as of Monday afternoon. Twitter and social media were ablaze with condemnation of the choice.

Normally, the boss of the U.S. Department of Education sending fresh-faced graduates off into the workforce with some words of wisdom would be met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from those not directly involved. There is nothing, however, normal about the Bethune-Cookman/DeVos scenario.

DeVos, who needed a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence to be confirmed for the position, was known for her school choice advocacy and being a billionaire philanthropist before President Donald J. Trump nominated her to lead ED.

She provided ammunition for critics who had argued that she was ill suited for the job when she said in February, aka Black History Month, that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were “pioneers” in school choice.

Who knows, maybe segregation slipped her mind. But what are members of the communities of HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) overall supposed to think when that gaffe is followed by Trump summoning Black presidents to Washington for what some have described as a photo-op and later DeVos signing off on an initiative that weakens consumer protection for student loan borrowers?

The reality is that HBCUs need money, as alumni donations and tuition aren’t erasing the red ink. If there’s one thing DeVos can do, it is to provide a pathway to funding.

Perhaps this really is a coup for Bethune-Cookman; maybe the competition to have DeVos speak was fierce. Could it be that Bethune-Cookman, much like Talladega College with its very profitable decision to put politics aside and have its marching band perform in the Trump inauguration, is making the right move — optics be damned?

There is a saying that, when it comes to business, if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.

Bethune-Cookman is making a huge assumption that its dismayed constituents will get over their current heartburn.

G.E. Branch III is online editor at Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.

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