Betsy DeVos heavily booed during commencement speech as students turn their backs

Donald Trump's Education Secretary was speaking at a historically black university in Florida

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The Independent US

Betsy DeVos' commencement speech to students at a historically black university has been met with boos and interruptions, with many students turning their backs on Donald Trump's education secretary as she addressed the crowd at Bethune-Cookman Universtiy.

The scene was so raucous that it prompted school president Edison Jackson to say: “If this behaviour continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.” 

The decision of Florida's Bethune-Cookman University to have Ms DeVos speak at their commencement originally led to protests on campus. 

The students claimed Ms DeVos’ policies disproportionately hurt minority students in the US, especially in the black community. 

Bethune-Cookman is part of a group of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that were established prior to the civil rights reforms of 1964 to help serve the African-American community.

Ms DeVos was supposed to speak for nearly one hour, but wrapped up in a third of the time.

She said: “While we will undoubtedly disagree at times I hope we can do so respectfully. Let's choose to hear one another out. I want to reaffirm this administration's commitment to and support for HBCUs and the students they serve."

School choice seems to be the crux of the problem most students have with Ms DeVos.

Ms DeVos sparked controversy in February when she called HBCU's "pioneers" of school choice – seemingly unaware they were only established because black students were not allowed admission to colleges or universities in many states.

Fedrick Ingram, vice president of the Florida Education Association and a Bethune-Cookman alumnus told CNN the comment was “blatantly ignorant”. Ms DeVos later recanted her statement.

In terms of policy, Ms DeVos has advocated for subsidising costs to parents, especially those in urban areas, so they can choose private charter schools for their children instead of sending them to free, public schools. 

Some see this as her ignoring the problems of the US public education system she is tasked with leading. Critics say she is also ignoring the fact that charter or religion-based schools may not provide an equal quality of education. They are often not subject to the same state standards as public schools and are only available to a limited number of students.

Ms DeVos has also worked to reduce consumer protections for those receiving student loans – approximately 71 per cent of American students at four-year universities have some sort of loans. African-American students are also disproportionately required to take out loans to access higher education. 

Mr Jackson argued the school decided to invite Ms DeVos because the administration did not want students “robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own” in order to prepare them for “democratic citizenship”.