Keynote speaker, comedian and alumnus Will Ferrell was a crowd-favorite among students and their families at USC’s 134th annual commencement ceremony on Friday, delivering a speech with advice, insights and song. However, the day before USC’s commencement ceremony at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University, graduating seniors had a very different experience.
School officials selected Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has demonstrated shocking ignorance about historically black colleges and universities, as the school’s 2017 commencement speaker. Students were rightfully frustrated to reach the end of their college careers and be confronted with a speaker so antithetical to their values and misrepresentative of their experiences. Despite dedicating four years of hard work at the institution, they were given no say or agency in deciding who would speak at one of the most important events of their lives. Therein lies a recurring issue at universities across the nation, an issue that could and should be remedied by giving students — whom commencement ceremonies are supposedly all about honoring — a voice.
On Wednesday, Bethune-Cookman University’s graduating students, who had risen from their seats to boo and turn their backs to DeVos, were warned that if they did not stop, the ceremony would be canceled and their diplomas would be mailed to them. Still, the students did not relent. It’s important that we not allow accusations of purported millennial hypersensitivity and intolerance of other viewpoints to distract from the real issue at hand — that commencement is about the graduates and offering them an opportunity to reflect on four years of growth through speakers who they believe can adequately speak to this.
In Bethune-Cookman University’s case, graduating students were wholly justified in their belief that DeVos could not speak to those experiences. DeVos has previously identified historically black colleges and universities as “pioneers” for “school choice” — an ignorant and painfully ironic sentiment given their origins in addressing segregation and nationalized racism. Her words disregarded the many black students who were historically barred from attending schools that were not designated for African Americans, and were tone-deaf to the continued discrimination faced by black youth.
DeVos wasn’t wrong to praise the many achievements of historically black colleges, but her ignorance of the rich history of racism and oppression from which these achievements stem from was not only offensive, but also signaled her inability to speak to the experiences of Bethune-Cookman University’s graduating class.
Additionally, the appointment of DeVos as Secretary of Education, for no other apparent reason than her millions of contributions to the Republican Party was offensive in itself to college students across the nation. DeVos’ ignorance and stark lack of experience with college loans and student debt is already being translated into unforgiving policies that make paying off debt more difficult for students and graduates. Her dedication to favoring private schools and instituting a system of school vouchers would decimate public schools and harm middle-class and low-income students.
Frankly, student protest is always justified. Contrary to Trump’s sentiments that students should not be “critics” at his Saturday commencement speech at Liberty University, we should aspire to create a society of young people guided to speak and act on their convictions.
That being said, it is an entirely separate debate as to whether individuals such as DeVos should be invited and given platforms to speak at colleges at any time of the year. However, commencement is unique from all other speaking opportunities at American universities — it is separate from merely giving a speaker a platform, as it is a direct demonstration of honor for the chosen speakers. Commencement ceremonies should not disrespect students by taking a ceremony meant to celebrate their values and achievements and using it to honor individuals who do not align with their values. DeVos’ statements and work against students’ best interests should have rendered her ineligible for such an honor.
Ultimately, when it comes to commencement, no school can claim that the ceremony is about celebrating its graduating students if their input is entirely disregarded, and if they are offered no determinism in how they will be celebrated. To that end, graduating students should have the power to nominate and vote for commencement speakers, or at the very least, be given choices by the university’s administration.
Now more than ever, higher education is about the exploration of students’ values and convictions. It may be that commencement ceremonies are apolitical and are not about honoring any particular values and convictions. They are about honoring the unique processes and experiences that allow students to grow and develop these values and convictions. To invite and honor individuals who students do not perceive as reflective of these processes and experiences, and to offer students no voice in shaping a ceremony that is meant to honor them, strips the ceremony of its value and purpose.