The leadership of two historically Black colleges and universities in Florida was on full display this past week, providing us with a glimpse of how important it is that college leaders listen carefully to their primary stakeholders: the students.
Dr. Roselyn Clark Artis, president of Florida Memorial University got it right when the Miami institution decided to award Trayvon Martin — the 17-year-old teenager who was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., in 2012 by George Zimmerman — a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science with a concentration in flight education.
For the graduating students at FMU, Trayvon Martin could have easily been any one of them. And had he not been stalked and viciously gunned down by Zimmerman as he waked home from the 7-Eleven carrying a bag of Skittles candy and Iced Tea, he likely would have been among this year’s graduating class, following in the steps of his mother, Sybrina Fulton, who is a proud alumna of the university.
“Florida Memorial University has taken the unusual steps to confer this posthumous degree because your son has come to mean so much to so many,” Artis told Fulton and Trayvon’s father, Tracey, who accepted the degree in their son’s honor.
On the eve of Mother’s Day, Fulton took to the stage with a heart full of thanks.
“Today was just a prime example of what our community is built on, and just watching all the 2017 graduates walk across the stage, and just to share that moment with them, it was very powerful,” said Fulton. “To say that we’re thankful, that’s an understatement. I think that this just shows what this community, how they feel, how they believe in our family, how they believe in our foundation.”
Martin’s death and the acquittal of Zimmerman, catapulted a wave of young people into activism.
“This is something he would have cherished,” civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton told me about the decision to grant the degree. Sharpton who nationalized Trayvon’s death and led around the clock protests that put pressure on the prosecutors to eventually arrest and charge Zimmerman, said that the degree “tells us of Trayvon Martin’s interest. He was not just a kid. He was somebody that had something on his mind, and that was a career in aviation.”
Earlier in the week, about 260 miles north of Miami, Dr. Edison O. Jackson made the wrong call by ignoring students, alumni and community stakeholders and deciding instead to allow U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a platform to deliver the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University.
Jackson—a veteran administrator—made matters even worse when he sought to chastise students for engaging in principled protests against DeVos.
“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” an agitated Jackson told the protesting students as DeVos looked on from the sidelines. “Choose which way you want to go.”
Jackson’s reprimand was insulting. In our current political climate where there is genuine outrage over equity issues in higher education, he should have read the tea leaves and have come to the sensible conclusion that a DeVos appearance at what should be the most celebratory day in a student’s collegiate career would not play well with this crowd.
Nor should it. The Trump administration has either put forth policies that would be devastating to our nation’s HBCUs or have been remarkably silent on the future of these storied institutions.
“It’s a spit in the face,” as one Bethune-Cookman student said. “Our graduation is the biggest day of our lives and it was sold out from under us because our school president has White House aspirations. Betsy DeVos doesn’t know anything about HBCUs or the legacy of Mary McCleod Bethune.”
In the wake of the controversy, several groups have called on Jackson to resign, and others have gone so far to label him an “Uncle Tom.” For those of us who have followed his career, particularly his stint as president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, that kind of characterization is not even close to the truth. Jackson has been a staunch supporter of Black students and HBCUs and a resignation would have left a major hole in the HBCU community. His distinguished record speaks for itself.
In this case, he simply made the wrong calculation. He should have listened to his students, or better yet, Ms. Bethune, who once reminded us that “if we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything that smacks of discrimination or slander.”
Jamal Eric Watson is the executive editor of Diverse. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson