A collision of free speech at a commencement

We can only imagine what the faculty of Bethune-Cookman University was thinking when they stood up as the booing began during Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ speech at commencement today.

But perhaps they were asking themselves if they failed in their goal of educating the next generation over the last four years or succeeded?

“While we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so respectfully,” DeVos said at the beginning of her speech. “Let’s choose to hear one another out.”

There was no chance that was going to happen in 2017.

“I want to reaffirm this administration’s commitment to, and support for, HBCUs and the students they serve. Please know this. We support you and will continue to support you,” DeVos said.

But the students says she was unfit for the task given what they say is the Trump administration’s lack of respect for HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities.

Earlier this year, DeVos praised HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” HBCUs didn’t start by choice; black students weren’t allowed to attend white colleges and universities.

  • MrE85

    I couldn’t help but wonder who invited DeVos, and why they didn’t see this coming?

    Our speaker was the then-governor of Indiana, Dr. Otis R. Bowen. I can’t remember a single word he said. I do remember it was hot, I was tired, and he was long-winded.

    • Rob

      It’s not a real graduation without a forgettable speech, overly long program and insufferable heat…

    • Anna

      The speaker at my commencement was Paul Murrill, the chancellor of the university.

      He didn’t give a long-winded speech filled with hot air about how we should be good citizens and get involved with government and public service.

      He thanked us for choosing LSU and hoped that our time spent there was inspiring and fulfilling and that our degrees would open doors to a bigger and brighter future.

      It was heartfelt and genuine.

      His address lasted all of 5 minutes.

      I have not heard a better commencement speech since.

  • AD

    I’m curious whether President Trump has accepted (or been invited) to speak at any commencement events this year– and how the number of invitations compares with the number of invitations received by previous presidents.

    • RBHolb

      When is the commencement at Trump University?

      • kevins


    • Neil

      At a minimum, the President usually rotates between the military academies.

    • DavidG

      Coast Guard Academy and Liberty University are the only ones I’ve read about.

      • RBHolb

        So Wharton has not yet invited its most famous graduate back to give a little talk.

        • DavidG

          From what I’ve read, Wharton seems more likely to sue to prevent him from ever mentioning them again.

  • bpost

    I know fully well that it just comes with the territory and the position, but as a spouse of a PhD–as well as someone who does share an alma mater with Betsy Prince DeVos (but it apparently didn’t do her much good), it really, really grates on me to see her in a robe w/ the doctoral velvet stripes.

  • RBHolb

    The problem with speakers like this–with any big name speakers–at a college commencement is that it takes away attention from the graduates. You know, the people for whom the ceremony is being put on. Remember them?

    When I was in college, the rule was that the graduating class voted on who the speaker would be. I don’t recall cabinet secretaries or members of Congress. It was usually, though not invariably, a well-liked faculty member who had some special connection with the class. That gave the speech some personal meaning for the graduates.

    I know colleges like the publicity and prestige that comes from having a big-name speaker, but there is a time to step back and remember why the college is there in the first place.

    • I always think the bestowing of even honorary degrees is kind of an insult to the people standing below who just spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars on theirs. I just don’t see the value of it. Invite someone to give them a speech. Give them a bag of M&Ms or something; but don’t give them something that cheapens what is being bestowed on the ones who did the work.

      • John

        My take is that honorary degrees are only valid while on the campus that issued them. Once you step off the campus grounds – zip. nada.

        Handing out degrees that aren’t earned seem like a quick way to risk your accreditation.

        • RBHolb

          Jerry Falwell called himself “Dr. Falwell” on the strength of an honorary degree awarded to him by the university he founded.

          Of course, Samuel Johnson had only an honorary doctorate, but we still refer to him as “Dr. Johnson.”

  • The faculty and administration of BCU should be ashamed of themselves for inviting DeVos to speak, when the policies she’s backed have hurt inner-city schools and the same minority students that attend BCU. The Trump Administration, of which DeVos is a member, has publicly said that they believe HBCUs are unconstitutional because they discriminate based on race (which is FALSE btw). I commend these students for voicing their displeasure. I hope they also make their displeasure known when their soon-to-be alma mater comes calling for donations.

    • MikeB

      A bad decision to invite DeVos.

      • dkbennett

        On what is your statement based?

        • RBHolb

          Perhaps it was because of Secretary DeVos’s tone deaf comments about HBCUs as pioneers of “school choice?” Or maybe it was based on the fact that, on Friday, President Trump threatened to stop federal funding for HBCUs, but then backtracked on Monday (like it or not, Secretary DeVos is a representative of the Trump administration)?

          • dkbennett

            MikeB can’t answer for himself?

        • MikeB

          Bringing in someone hostile to the mission and spirit of an institution is bad judgement. It’s an institution of higher learning, not a cable news show.

          • dkbennett

            DeVos is a Sec. of Education to all and your opinion is nothing but political parroting.

          • dbennet, please check your email.

          • dkbennett

            Your attempt at discouraging a dissenting view?

          • Did you check your email? It sought to confirm the identity provided because we have one person who’s posting under several different names at the moment and it’s a situation I monitor.

            It has nothing to do with your views. It’s part of how we’ve kept NewsCut civil over the years. Opposing views, civilly made, are always appreciated.

            So all you really had to do was just confirm by sending an email back. It doesn’t even have to say anything. Easy peasy. No drama necessary.

            Any problem with that?

          • ************Update****************
            I have remove “debennett” from posting in NewsCut after attempts failed to get a confirming response in an email to him, based on the information he supplied to Disqus. He appears to be one of our formerly regular trolls. I apologize that he slipped through.

            Periodically, if I suspect that users that suddenly appear are, in fact, our old friends, I’ll ask them to call me or email me, during which I can be satisfied that they either are or are not.

            This is time consuming and I wish I didn’t have to do it. Everyone can make the task a little lighter by (a) being better at the quality of your own comments (b) not feeding the trolls.

            I remind everyone that the rule for posting here are pretty simple and can be found by reading this entire article.


            I understand the compulsion to want to debate these requirements and standards. But this is nota debatable .


  • Michael

    This story is one that makes me sad, that the student’s are using the heckler’s veto to stop speech that they don’t want to hear. Let the people talk so you can learn what they think, maybe it will give you new ideas, then you can get your chance to talk, it might be outside the venue but you should get your chance. Preventing someone you disagree with from talking by using the heckler’s veto just makes you look bad, but student’s do not see it that way, they see micro-aggressions, they see hate, racism, and prejudice in other’s speech whether that is the speaker’s intention or not, and that they want to be “safe” from this speech. I am not sure how safe you are when you are not finding out what others are thinking.

    Weren’t we having this conversation yesterday when the other thread was almost hijacked??

    • KTN

      I’m sure this white women of privilege has a lot to offer these students – especially a history lesson, you know, like that HBC’s were the best choice for African Americans since you know, all other colleges were off limits because of the color of their skin. But the choice was theirs to make so I guess she has a point.
      Too bad the hecklers veto happened, but it could not have happened to a nicer person.

    • lindblomeagles

      1) The students heckled De Vos because De Vos is a controversial speaker speaking before a group of students who just want to hear “Good Job! Stay hopeful. Aim for your dreams. Make the world a better place.” 2) The students just want to hear that message BECAUSE as Bob noted earlier, they’ve spent 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars getting their education and now need A JOB. 3) De Vos is the type of speaker you invite DURING the college semesters, not at graduation, because her view of charter schools REQUIRES an audience that is REALLY interested in addressing the issue and will ask thoughtful questions that De Vos is eagerly waiting to answer. This incident is not just about the speaker. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong audience.

  • DavidG

    “While we will undoubtedly disagree at times, I hope we can do so
    respectfully,” DeVos said at the beginning of her speech. “Let’s choose
    to hear one another out.”

    Let’s say they had sat quietly, and heard her out. When was she going to hear them out? These typically turn out to be one-sided conversations.

    • lindblomeagles

      Your comment should have been a spotlight comment because you’re so right — De Vos and Donald Trump ARE UNINTERESTED in people who don’t think and act as they do. Terrific, terrific, terrific post.

  • kevins

    Commencement speeches should be concise (meaning short), articulate and to the extent possible, meaningful for the graduates, but the speaker should be allowed to speak.

    • lindblomeagles

      Somebody as controversial as De Vos should speak at a regular school forum, like Ann Coulter was going to do, with a moderator, who keeps the atmosphere civil, and who helps take questions for the speaker, including hard ones, after she gives the speech. You DO NOT invite a controversial speaker to a graduation ceremony because that is a day for HONORING THE GRADUATES; not testing a theory.

      • kevins

        Bad judgement regarding the person invited to speak is a separate issue. Listening first and criticizing second is a skill that many could benefit from.

      • RBHolb

        My feelings exactly. Controversy has its place on campus, but not at a commencement ceremony.

  • Al

    “We can only imagine what the faculty of Bethune-Cookman University was thinking when they stood up as the booing began during Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ speech at commencement today.”

    I can’t imagine what the faculty of BCU were thinking when the administration invited her to speak in the first place.

    • Rob

      Yes. The original invitation decision is a head-snapper.

    • Barton

      I really wonder if DeVos paid to speak at B-C U. Not that she was paid to speak, but that some PR $$ was used to get her access to the school. And enough money that the Administration couldn’t turn it down. Otherwise, really: what were they thinking?

  • Al

    I can’t help but think Mary McLeod Bethune would be pretty okay with these kids. If this is our future, sign me the hell up.

  • dkbennett

    Dr. Edison Jackson, the school’s President, is the real hero here.

  • KTFoley

    Argggh, I dislike the possibility that the post from two days ago about the University of Kansas study is going to haunt this discussion. Stipulating up front where my sympathies lie: she can speak; students can protest loudly; they can’t do both in the same time & place; it sucks that attending their own commencement entails sitting through her address.

    The university walked a knife-edge in its choice to invite her as commencement speaker.

    On one side is practicing all the preaching about welcoming diverse viewpoints, about allowing a free & open exchange of ideas, about respecting the position while disagreeing vehemently with the person holding it, about not giving in to backlash against unpopular views, about respecting its students’ intelligence by expecting them to engage thoughtfully.

    On the other is an imperative to acknowledge what the college and its graduates already know: they’re among the groups that will feel the brunt of Trump’s me-first stance.

    On a much less lofty plane, there’s the prestige of a cabinet member coming to speak vs. the lose-lose situation of turning a celebratory moment into a controversial flash point no matter whether they cancel or keep her engagement.

    How to do both? I am reminded that some of the best-remembered protests have no soundtrack:
    – Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium, 1968 Olympics
    – flowers in gun barrels, 1967 March on the Pentagon
    – Gandhi’s salt march, 1930 India
    – Tank Man, 1989 Tiananmen Square

    • AmiSchwab

      if devos was someone with something other money i would consider more tolerance. but trump put her in charge in order to destroy the school system. nothing else.

  • lindblomeagles

    The students DESERVE applause. Clearly Bethune Cookman was worried about future HBCU federal funding, invited Trump’s Education Secretary to commence graduation, and hoped to get on Trump’s good side. Graduation is always a bad time to ask for financial contributions. Then, there’s De Vos herself, who, in trying to find some place, any place, where she won’t be booed, accepted the commencement invitation WITHOUT thinking how her presence might negatively affect the graduates who just want their diploma, some hope a job awaits them tomorrow, and a photo op with friends and families. Had Bethune invited De Vos to speak in early April or March, the school and De Vos would look better. But the Trump Administration acts like “optics” is a foreign concept (see Comey firing), and HBCU’s are “desperately” seeking funding. Desperation leads to poor decisions.

  • dave

    Protesting a view by stopping it or shouting over it is very opposite of the spirit of free speech. Everyone has a right to disagree, nobody has a right to heckle. Everyone has a right to be heard, nobody has a right to stop others from being heard.

    THIS is why the left has the reputation it has…….sigh 🙁

    • king harvest

      What about the right to boo? Hiss?
      Heckling is free speech. It might be in poor taste, but speech is speech.

    • king harvest

      The left huh? Who heckled the President at a State of the Union address? Sigh:(

    • X.A. Smith

      The left is currently using the Tea Party playbook, circa 2010.