- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday plowed through the first commencement address of her tenure over a noisy chorus of boos during a raucous ceremony at Bethune-Cookman University.

The booing and catcalls began shortly after Ms. DeVos took to the podium. Many, but not all, students of the historically black college stood up and turned their backs on her, while at least one could be heard chanting, “Every back to Betsy!”

Outside the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Florida, several dozen protesters held anti-DeVos signs, as reported by WFTV-TV, the Orlando ABC affiliate.

Early on, Bethune-Cookman President Edison O. Jackson interrupted Ms. DeVos in order to warn students that he would scrap the degree ceremony unless the crowd quieted.

“If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,” Mr. Jackson said in video from the graduation posted by several Florida TV stations.

The selection of Ms. DeVos as keynote speaker ignited an uproar among critics of President Trump, which she attempted to defuse prior to her speech by meeting with students, faculty and community leaders.

At the start of her speech, she affirmed the administration’s support for historically black colleges and universities, which came under question last week over language in a funding measure on low-cost construction loans for such institutions.

“I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Please know this: We support you, and we will continue to support you.”

Her selection ignited opposition from some students and the NAACP Florida State Conference, which called for the resignation of Mr. Jackson and board chairman Joe Petrock.

The NAACP cited “multiple allegations” that administrators had threatened to withhold the degrees of students and fire faculty if they participated in protests against Ms. DeVos, which the university has denied.

Referring to the controversy, Ms. DeVos said that “while we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully. Let’s choose to hear each other out.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and particularly with those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be here,” Ms. DeVos said. “One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree.”

She received a hug when she was finished from Mr. Jackson, as well as a mix of applause and boos from the audience.

Mr. Jackson issued a statement May 1, the same day the university announced Ms. DeVos’ selection, saying that he disagreed with those who have rescinded invitations from “potentially controversial speakers.”

“That is not my intention,” Mr. Jackson said. “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.”

Mr. Trump’s signing statement Friday on the $1.1 trillion appropriations bill promised to treat such colleges “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”

He reiterated his support Sunday for historically black colleges, saying the signing statement “does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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