DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos struggled to deliver her commencement speech at a historically black college Wednesday, as the crowd drowned out her words with roaring boos.
Her remarks at Bethune-Cookman University on the importance of education were overpowered by calls from the audience to "shut the (expletive) up" and "not a Wildcat," the name of the university's teams.
Jeers from the audience persisted throughout her 20-minute speech, when she was introduced and while she accepted an honorary degree.
At one point, university President Edison Jackson interrupted DeVos to warn students, "If this behavior continues, we can mail the degrees to you." At least one person was escorted out of the arena.
Online petitions managed to collect signatures from about 60,000 people who didn't want DeVos at Bethune-Cookman. A handful of protesters from the NAACP, Florida Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, also flocked to Daytona Beach's convention center, the site of the graduation.
Still, Jackson defended the decision at a news conference before the event.
After an hour delay, during which journalists could not leave the building to speak with students or protesters, Jackson answered only three of four questions.
Clifford Porter, assistant vice president for institutional advancement, said while the university is "very aware of the misstatement," he hoped Wednesday's event would be an opportunity to educate DeVos about HBCUs. Students and alumni also have taken issue with the university's perceived comparison of DeVos to their school's founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator, humanitarian and civil rights activist. "We couldn't disagree more," Gilmer said.
The university volunteered one student to speak to the media, but he was quickly whisked away as reporters began asking questions.
"We have always been in the business of making friends, and if you don't have friends, it's very difficult to raise money," Jackson said during a news conference before the ceremony. "Her department controls roughly 80% of Title IV monies, as well as grants. So why wouldn't we want to make friends?"
Protesters from The Dream Defenders, a Florida youth organization working to better the lives of black communities, said DeVos will actually make it harder for Bethune-Cookman graduates to pay back their student loans after she halted an Obama-era program to help students manage federal college loans.
"Betsy DeVos should not be speaking at an HBCU. Betsy DeVos should not be the speaker at any educational institution," Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders, said in reference to DeVos' favoritism for non-traditional public schools.
Protesters said the move polarized what should be a day focused on the graduating students.
"This was not supposed to be a political event," said Keon Williams, a Bethune-Cookman alumnus. "They made this about politics."
In February, President Trump met with leaders from America's historically black colleges and universities when he signed an executive order to move assistance for the institutions from the Department of Education to the White House.
That's where, school officials said, the conversation started to bring DeVos to Bethune-Cookman's graduation. The decision to have DeVos address the some-300 graduating students came under immediate scrutiny.
Opponents pointed to DeVos' past comments about HBCUs as the "real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
Critics quickly slammed DeVos' statement, arguing HBCUs were the only choice.
Clifford Porter, assistant vice president for institutional advancement, said while the university is "very aware of the misstatement," he hoped Wednesday's event would be an opportunity to educate DeVos about HBCUs.
Students and alumni also have taken issue with the university's perceived comparison of DeVos to their school's founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator, humanitarian and civil rights activist.
"We couldn't disagree more," Gilmer said.
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