Betsy DeVos gave the keynote commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University on Wednesday.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and particularly to those who have disagreed with the invitation to have me speak here," the United States secretary of education told the crowd at the historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida, where she was met with raucous boos from the audience. "Let's choose to hear one another out."
The speech capped off several days of controversy. Since Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson announced May 1 that he had invited DeVos to speak, opposition has been fierce. Advocates and alumni blasted the school on social media and in protest letters. One alumnus, Dominik Whitehead, launched a Change.org petition calling for Jackson to withdraw DeVos' invitation that garnered over 8,000 signatures.
Administrators gave public statements arguing that DeVos' appearance was a valuable lesson for Bethune-Cookman graduates. It exposed students to ideas they didn't agree with, administrators said, thus better preparing them for the real world. But the clearer takeaway is that a wealthy, professionally-mediocre white person can be elevated to a position of vast federal influence based on an utterly uninspiring work record — and despite staunch opposition from roughly half the U.S. Senate.
DeVos has been rewarded handsomely for her incompetence. As an heiress, activist and member of an extravagantly wealthy and devoutly Christian business family in Michigan, she rose to prominence pushing to legalize school vouchers in her home state. She has fought doggedly for decades to divert federal funds from public schools into privately run, charter and religious institutions, many of which perform just as poorly as the state's traditional public schools.
"Her family legacy is built off undermining public education," Whitehead said in a phone interview last week.
In February, DeVos raised eyebrows when she referred to historically black colleges — schools born of forced racial segregation — as "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," a comparison she later backtracked on. And in March, she was confirmed as the 11th secretary of education, a position for which she was selected by President Donald Trump. DeVos has never attended a public school herself, nor have any of her children. She is the first education secretary ever for which this is true, and she has never held a job in education.
President Edison Jackson, for his part, defended his decision to invite DeVos to speak, invoking a familiar argument about the free exchange of ideas.
"If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship," Jackson said in a statement.
But it's worth asking how valuable those ideas really are when their proponent seems both vastly under-qualified for her job and bad at the work that got her there. It's one thing to disagree with DeVos' politics and invite her to speak anyway. It's another to give her a platform when her controversial endeavors have proven to be failures, repeatedly, by even the most modest of standards.
Arguments similar to Jackson's have been used to justify why Charles Murray keeps getting invited to speak at college campuses. Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, is best known for being a racist pseudo-scientist whose work has been debunked ad nauseam by his peers. He has argued that black people are less intelligent than whites, and is met with protests at many of his speaking engagements.
While DeVos doesn't hold views nearly as reprehensible as Murray's, the two have at least one thing in common: Both are famous for being bad at what they do. Murray is a social scientist whose most famous work relies the widely rebuked field of eugenics. In Michigan, the promises DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, made to "fundamentally improve education" have yielded mediocre outcomes at best, and disastrous ones at worst.
The latter is apparent in how DeVos' charter school experiment has performed:
"For 20 years, the lobby [that DeVos'] family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children," Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson wrote in an opinion column in December.
Since the DeVos clan launched their campaign to flood Michigan with charters back in the 1990s, the state has become the national leader in the number of such institutions. State taxpayers spend nearly $1 billion a year to fund these schools, according to a 2016 analysis by the Free Press. But their academic performance leaves much to be desired.
Thirty-eight percent of Michigan's charter schools that received academic rankings in-state during the 2012-2013 school year fell below the 25th percentile, "meaning at least 75% of all schools [in Michigan] performed better," the Free Press wrote. On the other hand, just 23% of traditional public schools fell below that percentile. Roughly 70% of charter schools in Detroit alone — where four out of five charters in Michigan are located — ranked in the bottom quarter of the state's schools, Politico reports.
Much of this chaos can be attributed to Betsy DeVos and her family, who have donated millions of dollars to school voucher initiatives over the years, including more than $5.7 million in 2000 alone.
"She is, in essence, a lobbyist," Henderson wrote, "someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them."
Johnny C. Taylor Jr. — president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which serves public HBCU students through scholarships and research initiatives — argues that these are harsh, partisan and disingenuous criticisms of DeVos.
"You disagree with her on one issue [school choice]," he told Mic in a phone interview, addressing the Bethune-Cookman criticism. "It is anti-American that someone could have one topic [you disagree with them on] and them not be allowed to speak at your institution."
Taylor went on to compare DeVos' HBCU comments to gaffes Democratic politicians have made in the past without significant consequences, including Harry Reid's controversial 2008 comments about Barack Obama lacking a "Negro dialect." He reaffirmed that Obama himself was anti-gay marriage before changing his mind. As for DeVos' professional failures, Taylor pointed to former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who oversaw many often struggling public schools in Chicago before being tapped to lead the DOE.
"If you take this to its illogical end, we won't have any commencement speakers," Taylor concluded. "These disingenuous arguments just reflect [critics'] dissatisfaction with the election."
Taylor added that some HBCUs even house charter schools on their own campuses. Of course, Duncan had the benefit of having actually worked in public schools — in contrast to DeVos — and of not representing the most outwardly bigoted White House in decades.
But if partisan hypocrisy is truly at the center of this controversy, perhaps Taylor's "illogical conclusion" isn't so illogical. Perhaps schools should be more selective of who they invite to speak at what is meant to be a day of celebration for graduates — or at the very least, require basic conditions be met by invitees who actively erode protections for student loan borrowers, as DeVos did in April.
DeVos did reportedly end up at an impromptu meeting with students before her keynote address. But that didn't stop audience members from booing loudly throughout her speech, with some turning their backs to her in protest or walking out of the auditorium entirely. The antipathy toward her presence was palpable. The boos continued even as she finished speaking.
"Why don't we have a real conversation with students about what she can do for them?" Whitehead, who launched the 8,000-signature Change.org petition, said. "Then maybe we can move on to a point where we can talk about her giving a commencement speech."