The month of May is a full one in the American academic community, as prominent commencement speakers, often clutching fresh honorary degrees, convey their best (and sometimes worst) advice to the fresh faced graduates who are ready to cut their teeth in the world of work. This month, one of those honorary degrees was conferred upon U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos by an unlikely host—historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Jacksonville, Fla. During her speech, DeVos was faced with boos and jeers from the Class of 2017. Naturally, videos of the incident went viral, and the internet quickly lit up with praise for the students’ actions, which continued even after Bethune-Cookman president Edison Jackson interrupted DeVos to admonish the students. The ranks of the Resistance celebrated the students’ solidarity in physically turning their backs to DeVos as she spoke, and the next day more than 200 black professors across the country signed a “love letter” to the students. “Watching you stand and turn your backs to her makes us elated. Overjoyed. Humbled,” the letter reads. “It was a day and a moment that should have been about celebrating you and what you achieved.”
As I read through my social media timelines after the event, I found it especially striking that no one seemed to be asking why BC-U had asked DeVos, who’d claimed historically black colleges and universities to be “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” to speak to these students in the first place. Why would they ask Betsy DeVos, the same millionaire political donor who proved herself to be unqualified for the position which essentially leads the nation’s direction on education policy, and yet was still confirmed? The same woman who spoke at the Brookings Institution in March and said:
Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose. Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk. You can get whole milk, 2 percent milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk and milk with extra Vitamin D. There’s flavored milk — chocolate, strawberry or vanilla — and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?
I was confused. The few journalists who’d picked up on the potential story a few days before it took place seemed to be, as well. Were the B-CU board and administration taking a Wi-Fi-less leave in Siberia from the rounds of incessant news updates the rest of us have been subject to since January?
No, they didn’t miss those updates. Historically Black College and University (HBCU) administrators—especially those who attended the bizarre “listening session” which occurred the day of DeVos’s “pioneer” statement—have probably felt the sting of those particular updates more poignantly than most of us. For many historically black universities, that pain is layered on top of the weight of shrinking student populations, funding woes, and reputations tarnished by administrative issues and board dramas. One could argue that people who work for such institutions have been under such pressures since the first—Cheyney University in Pennsylvania—opened in 1837. Traditionally, HBCUs have operated with low resources, embattled funding, and with a willingness to step up as the only chance for students the rest of the country tends to ignore or cast aside. America’s black students are more likely to have the least preparation for college and even fewer means to pay for it, but the black institutions of this country have provided opportunities for those students to climb up and out of the barrel of low expectations they’ve been placed into through institutionalized, racist policies. For example, one might look to the aforementioned Cheyney, which saw its student population shrink by roughly a quarter between 2010 and 2014. In 2014, South Carolina State University’s money problems resulted in a struggle to make payroll. Throughout the school’s history, it has produced a U.S. Congressman, the first black Supreme Court justice to serve in South Carolina, several artists and authors, a U.S. Inspector General, a civil rights “trailblazer” who became the first black woman elected to the South Carolina legislature, and much, much more. But names and accomplishments don’t transact with the world outside of the HBCU community, proven by the mere dribbles of federal funding waved in toward the direction of these schools (Brown University, for example, receives $3.2 billion in federal aid a top U.S. University, while Howard University receives a mere $586.1 million as the top HBCU). Since such things don’t transact, SCSU cut 90 part-time jobs in attempt to pay professors’ meager compensations. Ninety part-time jobs in a small, rural, Southern town isn’t just a lot. That’s devastating.
So, getting back to the original question, why did Bethune-Cookman University invite Betsy DeVos? The answer is sad, but simple. It’s desperation. President Trump’s interest in not just black colleges, but black people, is negligible at best. It’s easy to see that people of color confuse and frustrate the man, but it was painful to watch as the HBCU community searched for signs of hope when several HBCU leaders were invited to the White House, and then to the Oval Office. When members of a community that have been falsely maligned as dangerous and violent show up—with hope in their hearts—to the doormat of an administration which would have them completely erased, you know times have been hard for a long, long time. When the news of a resulting do-nothing executive order released the same day of the visit is buried by that of a silly woman sitting on a sofa like a silly child, you know times have been hard for a long, long time.
It’s widely known that a prominent commencement speaker can result in some extra funding. BC-U president Jackson seemed to allude to this as he opened the ceremony from the podium: “As we have said repeatedly, be careful of the people you let in your place,” he said. “But Bethune-Cookman University can’t do it alone. We need everyone to be a part of this continuation of our institution.”
Many have called Jackson’s words those of a sellout. People are afraid of a perceived weakness in those words, but weakness is a false interpretation. Jackson is absolutely correct in saying it can’t be done alone, and that everyone is needed in order to continue on. This isn’t new. All hands have always been needed on deck to keep the HBCU alive, and those that thrive are the ones with the most friends throughout many ethnic and socioeconomic communities. The historically black colleges that have fared best have been parts of communities where it is inherently known that the success of all students benefits all of the community. The HBCU may have been established in order to keep black bodies away from white classrooms and to keep black labor in its perceived place, but those with clear eyes and great hope and strong, interdependent relationships have been able to thrive. Unfortunately, the America that emerged to put Donald Trump into the Oval Office sees such a dynamic as a grave threat, and here we go again. BC-U’s was a desperate move. It was the move an institution makes when it knows the closing feeling of a chokehold all too well. Was it the right move? No. But when times are so desperate that they threaten our history, our progress, and our very existence, such moves—which can be seen as dire, or even frantic—are sometimes the only ones which might give hope for survival.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist based in Charleston, S.C. She writes about class, race, gender, and how perceptions of these affect community. Her essays have made appearances in Longreads, The Daily Beast, Literary Hub, Catapult, and Charleston City Paper.