Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went over like a lead balloon with her commencement speech at the historically black college Bethune-Cookman University in Florida on Wednesday.
DeVos spoke at the event despite raucous protests from students, many of whom were offended by remarks the conservative Michigan billionaire made earlier this year praising historically black colleges and universities as pioneering institutions of school choice.
The critics who believed DeVos’ presence at the event was an empty gesture shut her speech down with loud boos, prompting university President Edison Jackson to warn students: “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
But the jeering continued as DeVos accepted an honorary doctorate from Jackson and addressed the auditorium. Roughly half the students present turned their backs on her as she spoke.
“We are all here to applaud your perseverance and to encourage each of you to keep working to reach your full potential,” a visibly rattled DeVos told the crowd.
“And I’m here to demonstrate, in the most tangible way I know how, that I and the entire administration are fully committed to your success and to the success of every student across this great country.”
DeVos has come under fire by civil rights groups including the Black Lives Matter movement for some her positions supporting private schools, charter schools and religious education. Critics believe DeVos’ positions will harm traditional public schools and worsen school segregation, leading to worse academic outcomes for poor and minority children.
She took the high road about her reception in a statement issued Wednesday night, where she said she appreciated the invitation to speak.
“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree. 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,” she said.