United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will give the keynote address at the commencement of Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) in Florida on May 10, the historically Black university announced this week.

United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Courtesy Photo)

It marks the White House’s latest efforts to support HBCUs. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump met with dozens of Black college presidents at the White House to discuss the issues they face.

He also signed an executive order moving HBCUs from the Education Department’s oversight to the White House’s. Some panned the meeting with Black college leaders as a photo opportunity and said the executive order should have included funding to the schools.

After the meeting, many were taken aback when DeVos released a statement that called HBCUs “the real pioneers when it comes to school choice” because they were founded in response to segregation. The Washington Post reported that DeVos met with HBCU leaders the next day to clarify that the school system back then did not offer Blacks access to a quality education or any education—period.  

The announcement about DeVos speaking at the Daytona Beach school’s upcoming graduation has ruffled feathers on campus. The university’s president compared DeVos to the school’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. The educator and civil rights leader founded the school in 1904.

“Much like Dr. Bethune, Founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience,” Bethune-Cookman President Edison O. Jackson said in a statement. “Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune. The legacy of Dr. Bethune is that she was not constrained by political ideology, but worked across all parties to support B-CU.”

The school also noted that DeVos has backed several philanthropic initiatives in the state, including 100 Black Men of Central Florida, Jones High School and the Parramore neighborhood in Orlando.

Meanwhile, an online petition calling on the school to pick another speaker had 5,671 digital signatures as of May 4. The petition called the school’s invitation to DeVos an insult to the graduating class, students, alumni, family, friends and to Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy. The signers are demanding that the school rescind its invitation to DeVos.

“Instead of inviting Secretary DeVos to graduation, let’s welcome her to the table and have meaningful dialogue about stronger policies, the White House HBCU Initiative, and the importance and contributions of HBCUs,” the petition read.