“When we refer to our institution as sacred ground, we really do mean it. Betsy DeVos knows nothing about that,” LaNiese said. “If anything, I’d be surprised if she could separate Dr. Bethune and Harriet Tubman in a picture lineup. She’s not familiar with us.”
On Tuesday, students hand-delivered boxes with more than 60,000 petitions to school administrators demanding that DeVos be removed as commencement speaker. The Florida chapter of the NAACP has called for the resignation of Jackson and university board Chairman Joe Petrock after rumors surfaced that the school would punish students who protested DeVos.
Alumni and former student leaders wrote an open letter to administrators denouncing their decision to invite DeVos.
“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,” alumni said, quoting the school’s founder.
“It is disheartening that our alma mater has chosen to invite a speaker who supports policies that serve to harm, not help, Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU).”
Jackson defended Devos and said her visit was a good opportunity for the university.
“It’s a wonderful experience for our graduates, because how many institutions have a national figure to be their commencement speaker? We’re always about the business of making new friends,” Jackson told reporters before the speech. “If you don’t have friends, it’s very difficult to raise money. Her department controls roughly 80 percent of Title IV money and grants, so why wouldn’t we want to make friends? Is it illogical to talk about making new friends?”
Students were outraged not only by the presence of DeVos, but also that of Omarosa Manigault, director of communications for the White House office of public liaison. When Jackson acknowledged trustees and guests, asking them to stand, Manigault was met with scant applause from graduates and with boos.
“You don’t know her, nor do you know her story,” Jackson said.
And then the audience booed him, too.
President Donald Trump met with HBCU presidents in February, signing an executive order promising to make HBCUs “a priority” of his administration. In an attempt to fulfill his promise, he is moving HBCUs into the White House and released a statement Sunday saying, “Selecting an Executive Director and Board for my HBCU initiative and continuing this important work with HBCUs throughout the nation.”
LaNiese sees the administration’s HBCU proposals and DeVos as a farce that Bethune-Cookman school officials are playing into.
“We’re being a go-to and those token blacks for this administration. President Jackson keeps saying, ‘This is going to give us a seat at the table.’ From my perspective, it looks like they [the administration] are sitting at the table and we’re serving at the table,” she said.