Betsy DeVos met with boos, protest at commencement speech

DeVos, a billionaire, spoke to students about avoiding the "glamour" that might distract them from their goals.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a dinner hosted by the Washington Policy Center, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Bellevue, Wash. CREDIT: AP/Ted S. Warren
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a dinner hosted by the Washington Policy Center, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Bellevue, Wash. CREDIT: AP/Ted S. Warren

Betsy DeVos delivered a commencement speech at the University of Baltimore on Monday, sparking protests from students and members of the community. Her speech focused on the topics of thoughtfulness, selflessness, and perseverance. She also stressed multiple paths to professional success, including certificate programs, micro-degrees, and apprenticeships, and waded into debates about free speech on campus.

Students booed loudly as she was announced to speak, but remained mostly silent throughout her speech.

When the university first announced DeVos would be the fall commencement speaker in September, student government leaders spoke out against the choice. Students gathered signatures for a petition against DeVos as the commencement speaker and dozens of students walked out of class to protest the decision. The petition, which said it would welcome DeVos to a debate at the university, but not an event as significant and personal to students as commencement, had 3,257 signatures as of Monday morning.

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There was a small protest at the University of Baltimore, with some activists chanting, “Education is a right, not just for the rich and the white,” according to Baynard Woods, a reporter for The Real News Network.

DeVos, a billionaire, spoke to University of Baltimore students about persevering through life’s challenges and avoiding the “glamour” that might distract them from their goals.

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“Our culture seems to promote the idea of a sheltered life, free of hardship,” DeVos said. “This siren song tempts us to always take the easy road or path of least resistance, but real life isn’t like that, is it? … The path of a real and full life is like the path of success: It’s long, it’s gritty, and it’s sometimes painful. It requires resilience, perseverance and sacrifice. Those are words we don’t hear often.”

She referred to Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who has focused on the concept of helping students develop “grit” to succeed. But Duckworth’s focus on grit has been criticized, as least as far as it relates to disadvantaged students, at whom DeVos’ speech was aimed. Ethan Ris, a Ph.D. candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, looked at the history of discourse around grit in a 2015 peer-reviewed article and found that the concept was never focused on “at-risk” children. Rather, it was seen “as an antidote to the ease and comfort of wealth, which produced spoiled children who lacked the vigor of their ancestors,” he wrote in The Washington Post.

DeVos also touched on debates about campus free speech and essentially told students to be speak less often and less loudly, or, in her terms, more “thoughtfully.” DeVos talks about recent campus debates as petty squabbles between young people who are only interested in shouting at each other:

The first challenge may be unexpected in today’s culture of high volume and snap judgments. There is plenty of talking, but I’d suggest there is not nearly enough listening.  … Your new knowledge and skills helped to broaden horizons and confront realities you might not have previously anticipated. This gives rise to a new voice full of ideas. But with that comes with it an inherent responsibility to be considerate and careful in the exchange of ideas. Sometimes exchange requires raising your voice above the noise, but more often it requires embracing the power of silence … On social media and many college campuses, groups and individuals pit themselves against each other, not to discuss or debate deeply held ideas or beliefs, but to raise decibels, score gotcha points or shout down an opponent’s voice. The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to raise one’s voice louder, to promote your profile or ostracize others.

DeVos did not explain or provide examples as to what led her to believe students are not debating deeply held beliefs. Some of the debates students have had on their campuses in recent years include policies on campus sexual assault, statues, flags, plaques, and college names that represent the Confederacy or white supremacy in general, corporatization of colleges and universities, and labor issues for graduate students.

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Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the university, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he reached out to DeVos in January and she confirmed in February that she could do the speech. Schmoke said he didn’t make an announcement until September because of “logistical issues related to the fall commencement.”

Schmoke said he would like students to hear her views on higher education and said, “But secondly, having her at our university is in the best interest of the University of Baltimore because I’m trying to convey to our students the message that they’re graduating into a world in which not everyone agrees with, or has the same point of view on, every public policy issue that is before us.”

In March, DeVos delivered a keynote commencement address at Bethune-Cooke University, a historically Black college in Florida, Students shouted and booed at DeVos as she delivered her address. Later in the address, students turned their backs to DeVos. The college president told the students that if they continued the behavior, their degrees would be mailed to them.

“We can choose to listen, be respectful and continue to learn from each other’s experience,” DeVos said over boos at Bethune-Cooke University.

Only a couple months earlier, DeVos said historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were “the real pioneers of school choice,” a statement condemned by the NAACP for being a “painful display of a fundamental misunderstanding of the tragic history of race and education in America.”

The University of Baltimore has a large number of Black students. In 2015, 42 percent of University of Baltimore students were Black, compared to six percent of all college freshman and 15 percent of college-age Americans.