DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – People advocating against the Bethune-Cookman University’s decision to invite U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to speak at Wednesdays’ commencement ceremony hand delivered more than 50,000 petitions asking officials to reconsider a day before the event.
BCU students, alumni and friends of the historically black Daytona Beach university collected more than 50,000 signatures through Change.org, Color of Change and the Florida Education Association, according to a news release.
The group delivered the petitions Tuesday to the BCU President Edison Jackson’s office.
"We really haven't had face-to-face contact with him [University president] so we figured if you're not going to listen to our opinions via internet or any other way that we're trying to contact you then you can't beat proof that's in your face," said student Jasmine Johnson, who is against DeVos as commencement speaker.
The university's chief of campus safety, Gregory Elder, signed off on the petitions.
"We are in contact with the students and they're relaying to us that it's the sentiment that they want heard and I think that they're doing it the appropriate way," Elder said.
“Having DeVos speak at the commencement ceremony is an insult to the BCU graduating class, students, alumni, family, friends and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy,” read part of the petition. “We, the proud alumni of Bethune-Cookman University, do not want Betsy DeVos to have a seat at our table. Please rescind her invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony.”
[Read the full petition here]
If the university does not withdraw DeVos’ invite to speak, the group said hundreds will protest during her speech.
Jackson said DeVos was invited because “her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy” of university founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
DeVos has been an outspoken champion of vouchers for charter and private schools. She was criticized earlier this year when she said historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice. In fact, most historically black schools were founded to give African-Americans educational opportunities they were denied because of racial segregation and discrimination.
Groups including the Florida NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers have come out against the decision to have DeVos speak.
The NAACP also alleges that B-CU officials have threatened students and staff to keep them quiet about DeVos.
Cynthia Slater, president of the NAACP Volusia County-Daytona Beach Chapter, said the university is threatening to withhold the degrees and transcripts for any senior who protests. Undergraduate students could face suspension, be kicked out of organizations or face a fine.
"They'll have a fine of $1,000. I don't know where they get this arbitrary number of $1,000 from," she said.