Protests are expected Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University, the historically black school where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is set to deliver a commencement speech for the 2017 graduating class – a contentious decision that has resulted in widespread backlash from students and alumni.
The university said students who protest will not be punished. However, some students who have spoken out against the decision were allegedly threatened and intimidated for doing so, according to the NAACP and local media.
In the wake of such reports, the NAACP Florida State Conference called on Bethune-Cookman President Edison O. Jackson to resign.
"Since our initial public outcry last week, multiple allegations have surfaced including faculty intimidation demanding their silence or risk termination and threats to students by potentially withholding earned degrees and fines for freedom of expression," Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Florida State Conference, said in a statement. "If these allegations are proven, this contrasts the public statements of university administration who opposes suppressing voices by welcoming U.S. Education Secretary DeVos but lends indirect support to these actions against faculty and students."
Nweze said the state conference contacted attorneys who reviewed the university's student code of conduct and said it does not contain any prohibition on peaceful protests and freedom of expression.
She also said the T.J. Reddick Bar Association has agreed to represent faculty and students who "peacefully protest" and are "subject to retaliation by the university."
The NAACP Volusia County-Daytona Beach Branch and several attorneys will be on the ground Wednesday afternoon to monitor the situation, she added.
Nweze, who spent 39 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system, also cited recent comments from President Donald Trump that appeared to question the constitutionality of a federal grant program for historically black colleges and universities, and underscored her disappointment that DeVos has yet to pledge to increase funding for historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
"This validates our view of a horrible decision by the university," she said. "The university leadership has drastically fumbled and should resign."
Bethune-Cookman and Jackson in particular have been criticized for tapping DeVos to speak at the 2017 commencement, with students, alumni, faculty and others arguing she stands against what the school's namesake, Mary McLeod Bethune, stood for.
DeVos came under fire in February for a statement in which she linked HBCUs to her school choice agenda and lauded them for being "pioneers" in the school choice movement.
"They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education," DeVos said. "They saw that the system wasn't working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution."
Notably, HBCUs were founded and developed in a time of legalized segregation, when black students in America had very few, if any, options for higher education. DeVos later backpedaled on her comments, stating that "providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of" HBCUs.
According to prepared remarks, she also referenced Mary McLeod Bethune as someone who recognized that "the traditional school system systemically failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education – or, sadly, more often to any education at all."
Petitions circulating via Change.org, Color Of Change and the Florida Education Association calling for Jackson to rescind DeVos' invitation have garnered more than 50,000 signatures total.
Jackson, however, has stood firm, arguing that students should be exposed to people with differing political views.
"The political and racial chasms in our county have deepened, and college presidents have struggled with these issues over the past few months," he wrote in an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel last week. "Some have rescinded invitations to potentially controversial speakers. That is not my intention with DeVos."
Bethune-Cookman's chief operating officer, Albert Mosley, said Wednesday that DeVos' presence at the school will help to highlight the needs of black colleges and will serve to jump-start a conversation with her about why her February remarks generated such pushback.
"We look forward to continued efforts that will positively influence the direction of higher education in this country," he said, adding that people have been quick to criticize the invitation for DeVos to speak without knowing the lengthy process that took place to confirm her appearance at the school.
The secretary met with Bethune-Cookman students Wednesday morning, Mosley said.
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