The key word for Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement ceremony was persistence yesterday afternoon. US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos persisted over passionate, raucous booing and shouting.
The students persisted in booing and turning their backs on the speaker despite warnings in the weeks leading up to, and during the ceremony itself.
And then there was Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson, who did his best to appear more as a heel on a WWE Pay-Per-View event than the president of an esteemed private historically black college. At every turn, Dr. Jackson gave away leverage he could’ve held in a hostile situation partially of his making, to appease the idea of diversity over the obligation of dignity.
Just prior to Sec. DeVos remarks, Dr. Jackson prayed for peace. Literally prayed for peace. A black man leading a black college, with media cameras rolling and Black America watching, appealed to Jesus to save a situation of the school’s political manipulation, and in the process, made the students seem as malcontents who could only be calmed by divine intervention.
The prayer didn’t work, because the students booed the hell out of Sec. DeVos as everyone expected, including the secretary herself. And to her credit, she never stopped. She delivered her speech which, if you listened to it, was not a bad first commencement address for the lady who has been dragged nationally for her HBCU outreach at Howard University, and for awkwardly and inappropriately blending the school choice agenda with the principle of black college advocacy.
She never asked the students to give her a chance, never paused, never acknowledged that she was troubled by the students’ exercising of free speech. And the students never paused or gave her a chance. But Dr. Jackson became virtually undone by the situation. He interrupted Sec. DeVos’ speech to threaten the students with withholding their degrees. He paced the stage throughout the remarks. He looked visibly angry – which should not have been the case at an event where students told him they were angry about the invitation, would act angry at her appearance, and upheld the promises that their years at the school and thousands of dollars spent for their degrees afforded them.
And that’s the part Dr. Jackson seemingly has never grasped throughout the campaign to defend Sec. DeVos’ invitation, or in his critique of protests against it. It’s not about him, Sec. DeVos, Donald Trump, increased federal funding, or even the school. For all the political sense that welcoming a federal agency head makes for any school, graduation is indeed about graduates. The pomp and circumstance of commencement draws attention for the school and upholds the most sacred of academic rituals and traditions.
But it ain’t about the school. It’s about the students who pay for the school to remain open as a community resource helping it to reach its potential. HBCU graduation is a day for mothers to see prayers answered, fathers to shed rare tears, brothers to hug and to smile, sisters to laugh and dance, and children to be inspired.
Next to a church service, it is the closest thing to a mass religious experience black folks have; unrefined jubilation at the idea that young black men and women have changed the course of their lives, and the lives of their families through education. Thousands of people in that building didn’t know how they were going to make it to that day; how they would afford or pass classes, how they would overcome sickness, heartbreak and too few hours in a day.
But they did. And then the man leading the institution made it appear all for naught, in an effort to give Sec. DeVos more comfort on their day of making it over.
Bethune-Cookman’s Class of 2017 and Sec. DeVos performed beautifully during the graduation. They accomplished what they came to do, and did so with appropriate restrain and grace. No matter what predominantly white media says today, they should be credited for making the most of yesterday’s commencement and applauded for a job well-done.
Dr. Jackson introduced a controversy into the school’s finest hour, and then took precious seconds from it to make the ceremony about everyone else but the students and their success. His actions were far louder than any booing the students could have done, and more lasting than what Sec. DeVos’ appearance may have etched permanently into BCU’s proud history.
It is clear that anyone who can denigrate and threaten students on their day should not be president. The NAACP demanded his resignation days before the ceremony, and Dr. Jackson’s performance yesterday confirms their view of his judgment and temperament as accurate. He either does not have or does not want the cultural insight to lead an institution of free thinking, passionate graduates who take their role in civic affairs and social discourse seriously.
Seemingly, he wants a school of quiet, unquestioning negroes – or at least for them to be such when it fits an institutional political agenda. At any school, and specifically any HBCU, that is unacceptable.
Bethune-Cookman is a little more popular and more controversial than it was before yesterday’s ceremony. Its president may be more of the former than the latter, and trustees will need to take a hard look at how much impact that will have on the school’s bottom line and future prospects.