Federal officials are not strangers to HBCU commencements, and when they travel to our schools, it is usually a willful message from an administration to make a specific statement about an issue or outreach to Black America.
Among the earliest and most important was Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 commencement address at Howard University.
George Bush served as the keynote speaker at Hampton’s commencement exercises in 1991.
In 1997, Bill Clinton served as commencement speaker at Morgan State University.
Barack Obama served as the speaker at three HBCUs – Hampton, Morehouse and Howard. Members of his cabinet addressed several graduating classes over his eight years in office.
But now, one of the worst kept secrets in Daytona Beach is that US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will serve as the keynote speaker for Bethune-Cookman University’s spring commencement ceremonies. The school hasn’t announced it yet, but if true, it is for good reason; officials will have a lot of work to do in figuring out how to answer all of the questions and feedback that will accompany this invitation.
Given who she is, who she works for and where she’ll be speaking, it is more than a notion to believe that the opportunities for regrettable remarks or regrettable response will go viral. There will be a need for campus officials to listen to students and faculty, and to hear their displeasure with the decision to welcome DeVos to campus. And they’ll have to say all of the politically correct things which will make no one happy; the need for respect of different voices and opinions, the value in welcoming the highest-ranking educator in the country, and how partnership with the Trump Administration is not just a good idea, but that it may be necessary for the next four years.
But what BCU officials will not be able to say is what really happens when federal officials come to campus. Rarely do they receive an invite and just accept the opportunity to speak; frequently, the White House calls the president’s office and says “this is who we want to send for your commencement.”
Then the HBCU president has to clear it with the board, which will inevitably say yes but will have much of the internal debate about how to handle it with the public. Then the school has to wait for the White House to clear all press releases, to green light all handling of media inquiries, and to advise on the talking points about the appearance.
In all likelihood, nothing could be more uncomfortable for DeVos or Bethune-Cookman about this speech. Everybody is worried about what will be or should be said, and about how everybody will react to it. But the speech needs to happen because the White House should continue its promised outreach to HBCUs, and HBCUs must keep up the effort to engage the federal government for their own survival.
It is a chance for HBCUs, the Trump Administration, and the Democratic party to further realize the power of HBCU communities, and to examine the ways it can be leveraged to strengthen our schools and to build political capital beyond the limits of one political party.
There will be controversy. There will be booing. And there will be a speech. It may be uncomfortable for everyone, but it is the best way to build partnership over the long term for HBCU interests.