Joe Henderson: Betsy DeVos pleaded for students to listen, but shouldn’t she do the same?

devos booed

As students at Bethune-Cookman University turned their backs and lustily booed commencement speaker Betsy DeVos, the rattled education secretary pleaded, “Let’s choose to hear each other out.”

It’s ironic that DeVos chose those words to find middle ground, considering Republicans across the land, and particularly in the Washington establishment she now represents, have demonstrated no interest in hearing anything but the echo of their own voices.

The best leaders spend a long time listening before they speak. Perhaps DeVos should choose to hear the voices of those who believe we are seeing what may later be viewed as a historic assault on public education.

Republicans — including those in the Florida Legislature — are showing barely restrained glee at that prospect. As the highest-ranking agency leader in that charge, DeVos and many in her party have shown almost willful ignorance of the havoc this is causing.

A story in Thursday’s Tampa Bay Times quoted Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins warning the district, which services more than 200,000 students, may see a deepening financial crisis.

The budget passed this week by the Legislature cuts per-student funding by $27 at a time when Florida’s population is booming. Eakins said there may have to be a teacher hiring freeze. He also has to find a way to pay for about $3 billion total in new school construction, repairs for existing schools, and debt on previous construction.

It’s also odd that Republicans complain about the treatment DeVos received, many calling it rude and so forth. Yet, how many of them chanted “lock her up … lock her up” at the mention of Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, or even as late as March as President Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Nashville?

By that standard, I thought students at Bethune-Cookman were kind to the representative of a government that increasingly is turning its back on them.

DeVos at one point declared, “We can choose to listen, be respectful and continue to learn from each other’s experience.”

This is the same person who earlier declared that so-called historically black colleges represented the original school choice plan.

Choice, huh? The University of Florida didn’t admit its first black student until 1958 — the year DeVos was born, the daughter of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. Florida State didn’t begin admitting black students until 1962.

The memory of that kind of school “choice” is still fresh for many of the parents or grandparents of black students today. Education was their path to a better life. They see a government trying to change that.

They see DeVos as someone who doesn’t understand them and doesn’t seem too interested in learning. Maybe what happened at Bethune-Cookman will change that, but I doubt it.

There was widespread anger across the campus when DeVos was originally announced as the commencement speaker. There was a petition drive to have the offer rescinded.

I would give her credit for showing up anyway, except I think she probably thought she could turn this into a photo op with smiling, applauding students endorsing what she has planned.

She got that photo op all right, just not the one she wanted.

The question is, was she listening to what all those booing students were really saying? Is anyone?

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


  • Frank Mirabella

    May 11, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    Does the writer not understand that Bethune-Cookman is a private school, which stands to benefit greatly from the policies of Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration. The point of the story is not well taken..

  • victor peel

    May 11, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    Does the students at Bethune-Cookman know how much fed. grant money goes to that school, so whats the problem

  • Chris Reynolds

    May 11, 2017 at 11:33 pm

    The “problem” is that she has pursued policies that show a lack of understanding for education at many levels, and an ignorance re: how to improve education overall.
    Aside from that, she’s probably the most unqualified cabinet pick in that last few decades, and has made statements showing her ignorance of racial issues and public education. And that grant money is on the chopping block in the budget proposal from her boss. 🙂

  • Alberto N Jones

    May 13, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Everyone should thank Mr. Lane for his well balanced, factual and enlightening article following days of unrest and confrontation between BCU students and faculty derived from a poorly thought-out decision of inviting radioactive and highly toxic Ms Betsy De Vos to speak at one of the most solemn moments in the life of every higher education student. Years of hard work, suffering, sacrifices and dreams have paid off.

    This unfortunate event placed BCU and Daytona Beach in the limelight across the country for the wrong reasons. For decades, I have advocated with limited success the need of BCU to revive Dr. Mary Mc Leod Bethune conclusions, that the success of Afro Americans is indissolubly intertwined with Afro Cubans, hence her scholarships to Cuban students some of whom as the late Dr. Barragan stayed on as staff, led different departments and left an indelible foot print.

    BCU and every Historical Black University cannot ignore the powerful, rich 500 plus years of Cuba’s impressive Black History, of which Ms Betsy De Vos and Amorosa Manigault does not have a clue. Our students and faculty must be exposed to the exemplary life of Mariana Grajales who gave her entire family to the war of independence, her son General Antonio Maceo who rose through the ranks from a soldier to become the second in command of the Cuban Army of Independence and whose strategy is honored in the War Museum in France.

    General Arnaldo Tamayo, a cosmonaut from the City of Guantanamo in Cuba, is the first son of Africa to enter outer space, would be fitting example and encouragement of the limitless world our students should challenge.

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