Betsy DeVos, giving a speech to the BCU graduating class.

The Real Reason Betsy DeVos Got Booed at that Graduation Ceremony

You’ve heard by now about U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos getting booed while giving the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) last week.

Students at the historically black college (HBCU) pressured the university for weeks to retract her invitation to speak to no avail, saying that DeVos’ education policies hurt marginalized communities.

In particular, students focused their critiques on a comment DeVos made in February calling HBCU’s the “real pioneers” of “school choice.” But most historically black colleges and universities – particularly Bethune-Cookman University – were founded during an era when black students had no choice when it came to education. By implying that black students have ever been in a position to be meaningfully selective when it comes to education, DeVos erases centuries of struggle, and discredits the work of visionaries such as BCU’s founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.

In the keynote speech DeVos ultimately gave at BCU’s commencement, she vaguely referenced Dr. Bethune’s legacy as an educator. But, she didn’t do her justice – or really touch on Bethune’s story at all. Unlike most other schools in the South in 1905, the Literary and Industrial Training School Dr. Bethune founded was for black girls and run by a black woman – a feat certainly worth noting and celebrating with a graduating class comprised of hundreds of young black women and men.

DeVos’s empty remarks were met by continuous boos from the students, many of whom even turned their backs to her as she spoke. When DeVos spoke of visiting Dr. Mary Bethune’s grave, the boos grew even louder. BCU president Edison Jackson threatened to cut the ceremony short if the students continued, but it didn’t stop their protests. A sophomore who stood with his fist in the air in solidarity with BCU seniors was escorted out of the ceremony.

“People try to make a correlation between Dr. Bethune and DeVos. But it’s not the same,” Tyler Durrant, one of BCU’s graduating seniors told me over Skype. (Read Tyler’s piece here to understand in her own words why she turned her back on Devos.)

The disparity between DeVos and Bethune is only one reason why Tyler didn’t feel the Secretary was an appropriate choice for her graduation’s keynote speaker; it wasn’t just that DeVos couldn’t relate to Bethune, but also that she couldn’t relate to BCU students.

“Someone who’s never needed financial aid will never know what it’s like to take out loans, what it’s like to be in debt after graduating college,” Tyler’s twin sister Taylor, also a recent graduate from BCU, told me.

After DeVos weakened protections for student loan forgiveness, it’s understandable that she wasn’t warmly welcomed at a school where 97% of enrolled students receive some form of need-based financial aid.

Despite this, the sisters were open to DeVos visiting their university, had she gone about it differently.

“What we really would have appreciated was if she had first familiarized herself with the campus, and with us, instead of using our big day to overshadow us,” Taylor told me. “That would have definitely made it feel as though she was there to help, was there to get to know us.”

But inviting her to speak at commencement, Tyler argued, was not the right way to go about starting a conversation. She knew that the invitation meant that DeVos’s speech would “be a monologue, not a dialogue.” This thought process is what led students such as Tyler and Taylor to throw their efforts behind a petition to stop DeVos from speaking at their commencement during their final week of college.

It is a tremendous shame that Betsy DeVos didn’t get a chance to listen to students in BCU’s graduating class. Students who attend HBCUs understand that for those who come from low-income communities, from parents who never attended college, from generations of people who have been oppressed and locked out of the country’s finest schools, higher education is still a privilege and not a right.

Last week, during one of the most important moments of their lives, Taylor and Tyler and their student colleagues found themselves “at the epicenter of a bunch of chaos,” as they put it. They were rightfully disappointed when DeVos brought with her the attention of national press, and instead of shining the light on BCU’s graduating class, she shined it on herself.

“And I thought we were celebrating 300 plus graduates of black excellence.”

We are Tyler, we are.

Header image credit: John Raoux via USA Today

Zoë is a writer, photographer, and digital activist currently working with She has written about sexuality, internet privacy, surveillance, and censorship, and new technologies in the adult industry. In 2014, she founded the SFW site for sex-positive and kink related events,, which she still runs.

Zoë is a digital campaigner and blogger based in the Bay Area.

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