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A speech disrupted and deconstructed: On the arrogance of Betsy DeVos giving a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University

May 12, 2017

On Wednesday, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave the commencement speech at one of the nation’s historically black universities, Bethune-Cookman University, located in Florida.

Current students and alumni had opposed having DeVos be the commencement speaker, because of racist and insensitive comments she made about black colleges and universities being “schools of choice.” The opposition was public, with marches, formal statements and a petition campaign that had generated some 50,000 signatures prior to May 10. 

When DeVos was introduced students began booing and yelling to attempt to drown out the Secretary of Education. Many of the graduating students also stood and turned their backs on DeVos and the administration that invited her, all of which can be seen in this video.

While much of the news coverage focused on the student opposition, little was shared about what Betsy DeVos said and attempted to say. A story on Buzzfeed included these comments from DeVos: 

“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” she said. “I have respect for all those who attended, including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs.”

Like much of her speech, reasonable people would take issue with what she had to say. In all the years of monitoring the activities of the DeVos Family and Betsy DeVos in particular, there is little indication that she is interested in conversations with those with whom she disagrees. In fact, what Betsy DeVos has demonstrated over the years is that she has used her family’s deep pockets to fight against people she disagrees with, particularly those who support public education, LGBTQ rights, public sector unions, pro-choice advocates, working class people in general and anyone who wants to keep religion out of the public sphere.

Betsy DeVos attempted to say many other things during the commencement speech, much of which was difficult to hear based on the videos and often ignored. However, it is worth deconstructing some of the comments from her speech, which can be found in its entirety here.

DeVos’s speech is entitled A Calling to Service, Courage and Grace. One question we might all ask ourselves is how does someone who was born into and married into the billionaire class practice service. It is well known that Dick and Betsy DeVos have numerous people working in their home ion Holland in varying capacities, but primarily as domestic servants.

Early on in her speech DeVos said, “I am at the table fighting on your behalf, and on behalf of all students across this great nation.” This has not been historically true, since Betsy has fought against public education for several decades, both by creating entities such as the Great Lakes Education Project and by funding anti-public education and school privatization campaigns across the country. 

What was most disconcerting about the Education Secretary’s speech was her misuse of comments from the university’s founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. DeVos said there were three main themes she found in reading Dr. Bethune, one of which was that we should, “take responsibility for your families and your communities and never tolerate inequality or injustice.”

So how does Betsy DeVos reconcile her being part of the billionaire class when so many millions of families live in poverty? How does her class privilege relate to not tolerating inequality or injustice? Simply put, it doesn’t. Betsy DeVos, along with the rest of the capitalist class, made their wealth through injustice and inequality.

Lastly, towards the end of her comments, Betsy DeVos stated, “And when some pursue dissention, you can engage in debate with grace and poise, just as Dr. Bethune did.” While it is true that Dr. Bethune may have displayed a tremendous amount of poise and grace in her lifetime, the reality is that it was precisely because of her dissention, and the dissention of countless other black educators, that HBCUs were started throughout the country. Like any struggle for justice, black colleges and universities were build on dissention against institutionalized racism and white supremacy., something Betsy DeVos would know little about.

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