This isn’t like Talladega College going to perform for President Donald Trump’s inauguration. For all of the trouble, the Marching Tornadoes earned a trip to Washington D.C. and a new national donor base – even if comprised of mostly one-time givers.
Bethune-Cookman University’s kind of conservative trouble isn’t like that. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is not going to bring a check with her. She is unlikely to announce a new funding initiative with new money which will be exclusive for Bethune-Cookman, private black colleges, or black colleges period.
Sec. DeVos’ appearance is an understandably savvy form of political outreach to the Trump Administration and the federal government – the same kind of outreach Talladega made in accepting an inaugural parade invitation. But instead of a check, Bethune-Cookman could lose money, students, alumni support and community relevance.
And even if money was coming which could replace all of those things, will it be enough to defray the long term costs of the controversy?
BCU President Edison Jackson defended the DeVos commencement invitation by comparing her ideas about educational autonomy to those of school founder Mary McLeod Bethune:
“Much like Dr. Bethune, Founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience. Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune.”
The invitation is politically smart but culturally bad. Comparing her to Mother Mary was unforgivable.
And when BCU stakeholders responded with outrage expressed through social media, petitions, and now demand executive resignations, Jackson and Bethune-Cookman Board Chairman Joe Petrock doubled down on defending DeVos.
“We have not and will not seek to chill the free speech of our students and faculty; as we support the free exchange of alternative ideas in all academic efforts. Commencement is an occasion that celebrates the best of our students and we have always endeavored to ensure that it is considered a sacred and reverent ceremony. We uphold existing policies and procedures to protect the integrity of our commencement exercises and will continue to do so during Secretary DeVos’ visit.”
The smart money would’ve been on Bethune-Cookman leaders acknowledging the rage of students and alumni. Controversial invitations and speakers are not unique to HBCUs, but the key to navigating these invitations is to validate the concerns of those on campus whose sensibilities and ideas of their college experience are compromised by such an appearance.
Academic freedom and free speech are constitutional rights, not executive shields. And now that BCU leaders have invoked it them, they can make no comment or complaint about students walking out of commencement en masse, alumni and faculty shouting and booing during Sec. DeVos’ speech, or any other expression guaranteed under the supreme law of the United States of America.
But more than that, there is little defense the school can make to students who may transfer, alumni who may speak out against giving, families who redirect students away from the school, and community supporters who turn their back on BCU as a result. For all of the latitude Bethune-Cookman is working to build with the federal government, what will it mean if the school struggles to make metrics in enrollment and completion over the next two years as a result of this one speech?
For all of the media coverage the school has received and will receive between now and tomorrow’s speech, will it translate into any sustainable positive media relationships with the school? Will the appearance, which has enraged graduates and will be the single most profound memory many of them take away from their college experience, be worth the money and time that will be required to cultivate them as donors 10, 15, or 20 years from now?
This is the kind of story that will live, either publicly or privately, until there is a resolution that the Wildcat community can endorse. For now, it appears that the removal of the president and the board chair are the only viable solution. Even if that seems extreme and short-sighted, if the institution does not force that separation or offer a suitable countermeasure, then students, alumni, the NAACP and others will work until penance is made.
And if that means damage to the institution, so be it; because in their eyes there is no greater damage than what has already been done.
Most of us understand the value and strategy behind Sec. DeVos’ appearance in Daytona Beach; just like we understand the anger behind the opposition. But it’s hard to understand why school leaders would seek to defend DeVos more than supporting its own base, and seemingly doing little to prevent long-term damage as a result?
The only thing worse than being dead wrong is being dead right. And in the complex war between racial pride and political clout, Bethune-Cookman and its legacy does not deserve martyrdom.