The Outsiders Who Were Behind the Booing of Betsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman

Trump hosted black college presidents in the Oval Office, something Barack Obama never got around to.

Bethune-Cookman University graduates turn their backs while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks in Daytona Beach, Fla., May 10. Photo: Associated Press


ByJason L. Riley

Jason L. Riley

The Wall Street Journal

To say that President Trump’s immediate predecessor had a dicey relationship with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, would be putting it mildly.

President Obama’s first budget proposal cut funds for black colleges, which mostly lack big endowments and depend on the government for a large share of their revenue. The Obama administration also stiffened eligibility requirements for loan programs that HBCU students, who tend to be low-income, are likelier to use. Following the changes, some 28,000 students at black colleges were denied loans and enrollment fell. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, spoke regularly at black colleges without being booed or heckled.

This history provides useful context for events that unfolded on two HBCU campuses last week. At Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, Mr. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was repeatedly interrupted by hecklers as she attempted to give a commencement address. A few days later, an invitation to Republican Sen. John Cornyn to address Texas Southern University’s graduating class was rescinded out of concern that the Texas lawmaker might encounter similar treatment—or worse.

“We got into some safety issues,” Austin Lane, TSU’s president, told me. “I got a sense the students were fine. Some of them would have protested, but that’s a given. You’re never going to find a speaker that makes everyone happy. The problem was this outside influence.” Mr. Lane said the school got word “that people would be coming in and they were going to cause trouble. They contacted us, these black militant groups, these Black Lives Matter groups—official and unofficial. And then you had these white groups who were coming to protest the protesters. So it was no longer about a commencement.”

Mr. Lane explained that the school holds the graduation ceremony in a public place and anyone can attend. No tickets are required, and he said the protesters planned to take advantage of the arrangement. Without the security apparatus to handle what might ensue, TSU and Mr. Cornyn decided to err on the side of caution. “It was a mutual agreement that he not come,” said Mr. Lane. “I’m glad I saw this coming because I don’t want to embarrass my senator. I feel terrible about what happened to Betsy DeVos. What an embarrassment it would have been if we knew that was going to happen with Sen. Cornyn and we still went ahead with it.”

It’s now clear that Bethune-Cookman was dealing with similar “outside influence.” The recent HBCU protests are being portrayed in the media as more of the same kind of student-led campus agitation that’s become so common in recent years. If fact, these black college protests are being driven largely by professional pressure groups affiliated with well-funded national organizations that are pushing a partisan agenda often at odds with the well-being of HBCUs.

The petition that garnered more than 50,000 signatures opposing Mrs. DeVos’s commencement address wasn’t started by students and alumni but by the Florida affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest and richest teachers union. And it was a state chapter of the NAACP that hired lawyers for the effort and actively helped organize the protests. Both the teachers union and the civil-rights organization oppose Mrs. DeVos because she supports school choice. Never mind that large majorities of black families have long sided with the secretary on this matter, according to polls.

A Stanford study from last year put support for charter schools at 2 to 1 among low-income blacks. Other research has shown that black students in charter schools learn more and are more likely to attend college than their peers in traditional public schools. Moreover, HBCUs apparently agree with Mrs. DeVos’s choice advocacy given that several of them—including Howard University, Grambling State University, Texas Southern University and Florida A&M—have charter schools operating on their campuses.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order in support of HBCUs within 100 days of taking office and well earlier than Mr. Obama got around to it. The president also met briefly in the Oval Office with the collective presidents of HBCUs, something Mr. Obama never got around to doing in eight years and despite repeated requests. Mrs. DeVos’s first visit to a college campus—any college campus—as secretary of education was to Howard, which is perhaps the country’s best-known black college. And the secretary has personally and repeatedly expressed her support for HBCUs.

“I look at the things that have been done so far and the things that have been proposed, and I’m optimistic,” said Mr. Lane when I asked him about the Trump administration’s outreach. “We had a hot and cold relationship with the previous administration. Trump came out early and said, ‘You’re a priority.’ I’ve noticed a difference.”

Appeared in the May. 17, 2017, print edition as 'The Outsiders Who Were Behind the Booing of Betsy DeVos.'