While May serves as the capstone to the academic journeys for legions of the nation’s college graduates, for the 2017 graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University (BCU), a historically Black university founded in 1904 by Mary McLeod Bethune, located in Daytona Beach, Florida—May 10th was a day filled with pomp and circumstance as well as protest.
Despite a petition signed by more than 60,000 students, alumni, and community members, PresidentEdison O. Jackson and the BCU Board of Regents moved forward, ignoring protest from the community, alumni, students, and faculty, and extended an invitation to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to deliver the graduation commencement address.
Myriad missteps led to ominous clouds that accumulated and hovered above DeVos’ invitation: the public gaff of misspelling W.E.B. DuBois name; the ahistorical, decontextualized, and misguided reference to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as the first schools of choice; the unwavering support she provided to charter schools and voucher programs. Thus, for many DeVos represented the very oppressive systems that led to the broken and uneven P-12 systems that several individuals in the audience had to overcome, just to pursue their postsecondary education.
The outcome of the decision to forgo rescinding DeVos’ invitation became manifest in a most profound and public way at the graduation commencement ceremony. Many of the graduates chose to engage in active protest, ranging from booing, turning their backs to the stage, and even exiting the venue altogether.
What this debacle provides is an opportunity for critical reflection and a ‘teachable moment’ on a number of topics—agency, education, oppression, race, and representation—across a diverse constituency; namely, students; whether alumni or current as well as administration and faculty.
For the University administration, the reflection process must begin with introspection to determine what beyond the espoused narrative of “exposing students to individuals who hold divergent viewpoints” would move them to shift in a direction that was so diametrically opposed to their constituencies.
Part of the administration’s reflective process might prompt a review of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, particularly his discussion of ‘playing host to the oppressor:’
How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy.
For the administration to view their actions and ways of being through a Freirean lens is not a deficit perspective, but rather represents an asset-based approach that gets to potential blind-spots, gaps in thinking, and unearthed internalized racism that can seep through fabric and unwittingly permeate the pores.
President Jackson said to the protesting graduates, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you — choose which way you want to go.” At best this action and statement was a missed opportunity to show the students that their protest and voices “mattered.” The epoxy that could have potentially created the bond between the president and students were the very words of Mary McLeod Bethune, “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.”
The charge for both academic and student affairs officials on college campuses is to challenge as well as support students in their learning, growth, and development processes. While we might at times challenge their decisions, we provide them with the support to select from an array of viable options that reside at the intersection of identity and integrity.
The memories of the May 2017 Bethune-Cookman graduation will elicit for some feelings of accomplishment, while for others the ceremony will serve as a discordant reminder of love lost or perhaps more accurately as a love that never was. While DeVos and HBCUs might have courted, she was never truly our “Boo.”
Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is a professor and Endowed Chair of Educational Leadership and Counseling at Prairie View A&M University.