ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed and heckled in Florida today while she gave the commencement address at a historically black university.
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BETSY DEVOS: Dr. Jackson, board of trustees, thank you so very, very much for this great honor and privilege. I am honored to become a Wildcat.
SIEGEL: About half the students at Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs on the secretary when she began delivering the keynote address. Booing continued throughout her speech. At one point Bethune-Cookman's president, Edison O. Jackson, had to step in.
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EDISON O JACKSON: If this behavior continues your degrees will be mailed to you.
SIEGEL: Students and alumni of Bethune-Cookman say they are outraged by the decision to invite DeVos. Joining us now for more is NPR's Eric Westervelt of the Ed team. And Eric, explain the tension here.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Well, Robert, I mean, on social media and elsewhere, students and alumni were just calling this a bad decision to invite Secretary DeVos. I mean, there was a petition drive protesting that was signed by tens of thousands of people. There were calls for President Jackson, who we just heard, to resign. Opponents are saying, you know, DeVos is pushing an agenda to privatize public education, that she and the Trump administration are no friends of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
And early in the year, Robert, she had to walk back when she said, quote, "HBCUs were real pioneers when it comes to school choice." She had to clarify those because HBCUs, of course, were founded when there was legal segregation and they were the only option for many African-Americans.
SIEGEL: In defending the decision to invite Secretary DeVos, the university's president, Jackson, cited free speech on campus and also the university's history. Tell us about that.
WESTERVELT: Yeah, Jackson said DeVos' mission, in his words, you know, to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of this college. But some students called that an insult, noting that the founder, Ms. Bethune, is a daughter of former slaves, Robert, and overcame huge obstacles to become a leader in civil rights and education, and that Betsy DeVos is a billionaire born into privilege.
But the school's president, Robert, said - and I'm quoting here - "if our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, they'll be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship." And it's an idea DeVos touched on in her speech, saying, you know, we need to listen to those with whom we disagree.
SIEGEL: Secretary DeVos was controversial from the moment she was nominated to head the Education Department. What is it about Betsy DeVos that seems to be driving this?
WESTERVELT: Well, it's her politics, her personality. She's been a lightning rod from the get-go. This is not the first time she's been heckled. You know, Robert, on one of her first days on the job she was met by protesters when she tried to visit a public school in Washington, D.C. Hecklers showed up at some of her other appearances. She is the first education secretary to receive a 24/7 security protection from the U.S. Marshals Service.
You know, and when her office or she makes any kind of typo or mistakes it becomes fodder for late-night jokes or trends on social media. Opponents paint her constantly as an out-of-touch billionaire who wants to undermine public education, and, you know, her office keeps pushing back, saying that's just an ugly mischaracterization.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, thanks.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
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