The graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) made headlines around the world when they stood up and turned their backs during a commencement address delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. BCU President Edison Jackson interrupted her remarks after the protest continued and said, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
Jackson’s admonishment was appropriately framed as a choice. The students had to choose sides. At that moment the decision by the students to show resistance was solidified. They could not straddle the fence as so many have become so accustomed to. The Trump administration is quickly forcing people to choose sides.
An argument can be made that the students’ choice to continue their protest was in alignment with the philosophies of the school’s founder Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune wrote in 1944 that “if we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything…that smacks of discrimination or slander.”
Support for the students’ resistance has been less about the personal attributes of DeVos and more about her proposed policies that threaten to gut funding for HBCUs and public schools, among other things. The policies of the Trump administration are set up to have a discriminatory impact on the working class and people of color.
The graduating students showed that they not only selected a major at BCU, but they selected a mission. Their mission involved taking a stand for something bigger than them –a stand against a Trump administration that wants to rip health care away from 25 million people as well as significantly diminish funding for after-school programs, college preparation programs, Pell Grants and similar assistance.
The students’ protest showed disapproval for an administration that seeks to starve out traditional public schools in an effort to siphon money into the hands of private interests and reinvigorate the War on Drugs as evidenced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent directive to vigorously prosecute low-level drug offenders.
The situation was one that could have easily been avoided had the university administration been sensitive to the loud voices opposing her selection as graduation speaker, including a petition that contained 60,000 signatures. It is ultimately the students who hold the real power at these institutions. There is no college or university without them. The students exemplified the kind of courage that is missing from too many high-ranking university officials.
It must be noted that there is some deal of hypocrisy in some of those who are coming down on DeVos but let the Obama administration off the hook for changing the participation requirements for Parent PLUS Loans. The changes caused more than 200,000 recipients who were previously accepted to be rejected. This prevented them from being able to pay for their child’s tuition after they had maxed out other forms of aid. HBCUs were hit incredibly hard because of this change.
In fairness to the BCU administration, it is difficult for financially struggling HBCUs to not engage with a U.S. Department of Education that controls critical funding streams that institutions rely on. The dilemma that many institutions face is reminiscent of a scene in the movie series “Roots” that depicted the president of Alabama A&M, along with Professor Simon Haley. The president was asked to sing a Negro spiritual for representatives of a White foundation. As he sang “nobody knows the trouble I see …” Haley was taken aback that the president would grovel at that level. The president sang because the school relied on the private foundation dollars to supplement the insufficient amount of funding that they received from the state of Alabama.
Maybe the BCU administration felt similar pressures to those of Alabama A&M in their courting of DeVos. Regardless of their intentions, it was a tone deaf move to alienate the majority of their student population and alumni base. There is certainly a lane for all parties in the quest for institutional progress. There is a place for confrontation and conversation. The key is to be able to hold fast to core principles and not succumb to the kind complacency and fear that arrests the development of some institutions.
There have been numerous calls in the aftermath of the BCU graduation for alumni and other supporters of HBCUs to boost their level of financial support for these institutions. Unfortunately, discriminatory policies have historically blocked many Blacks from being able to accumulate wealth at the level of other communities. This then limits the capacity of individual donors to financially support these institutions. HBCUs cannot rely on episodic charity (as great as it is), but must have resource streams that are embedded in policy. It will likely take some combination of demonstration and negotiation to put this in place.
The day is quickly approaching when more people who are accustomed to sitting on the fence will be forced to choose sides. This choice may require people to sacrifice money, positions, and status for the greater good of the broader community. The future of healthcare, education, criminal justice reform, and voting rights are in the balance. We will have to choose which way we want to go. This is not a time to be lackadaisical when a DeVos-like mentality and agenda is sweeping the nation. Let the actions of these students serve as a launching pad for a renewal of the kind courage that will be needed to sustain the tremendous legacy of HBCUs.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a political commentator and the executive director of Education for a Better America. He also serves as adjunct professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Lynn University.