U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos applauded University of Baltimore graduates during their winter commencement ceremony Monday and challenged them to be thoughtful and selfless, and to persevere in the face of hardship.
But her address was met with protests by some students and faculty who said they find her views on public education repugnant and who silently turned their backs as she spoke during the ceremony at the Lyric theater.
Several dozen graduates slowly rose in protest as she spoke. First, two women in the front row — including one whose graduation cap read "#Not my commencement speaker” — stood and turned away from DeVos. Soon more graduates and audience members joined their ranks. Multiple graduates raised their fists. One faculty member joined the demonstration from on stage.
DeVos has become a lightning rod in the national debate over “school choice,” or allowing families to use public funds to send their children to private schools. DeVos is an advocate of such efforts and says it will create competition for students and help public schools improve. Teachers’ unions and other supporters of public education say such allowances take much-needed funding away from public schools.
In her remarks, DeVos alluded to the division facing the country as she spoke about the current tone of public discourse. Last spring, when DeVos spoke at the commencement ceremony at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, students interrupted her speech with boos and turned their backs to her.
"The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to raise your voice louder, to promote your profile and ostracize others,” she said. “Too many assume that those who are the loudest are leaders and those who stay quiet are followers. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot embrace this paradox of silence.
“We will do well to first listen, study, ponder, then speak to genuinely engage those with whom we disagree. Voices that are quiet at first, grow in strength, while those who rush to shout are humbled.”
When he heard these words, William Keith Pierre chose to rise in protest. He lifted his fist above his head as he turned his back on DeVos.
“Raising my fist was my way of saying, ‘Resist,’ ” said the 42-year-old recent graduate. “This is a public university and I don’t feel like any of her views represent the student body here.”
Much of the crowd remained seated during her address, which was met with a mix of applause and boos when she finished.
University President Kurt L. Schmoke announced his choice of DeVos as commencement speaker in September, prompting immediate protests and petitions from some students who said DeVos’ views on public education contradict their own. A group of protesters gathered outside the Lyric theater about an hour before the commencement began, many carrying signs celebrating the "power of pUBlic schools.”
"Ms. DeVos seems to go against the very core of so many of UB's values and makes our mission statement look to be a mockery,” stated a petition signed by more than 3,000 people. It urged the university to rescind the invitation.
Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore, refused to do so and said the invitation to DeVos is in keeping with the traditions of the college.
“The university stands for freedom of speech,” Schmoke said in September. “My bottom line conclusion is the university stands for debate on controversial issues. I do feel that having the U.S. Secretary of Education on our campus is something that’s very important for the university, and in the long run, I believe that students will recognize that whether they agree with her position on issues or not.”
Sprinkled throughout the protesting group outside the theater were a handful of University of Baltimore professors, dressed in their academic regalia.
"We don't feel the secretary of education represents the best interests of this college or the students who go to it," said writing professor Marion Winik, who skipped the ceremony in protest.
Many students said they were disappointed DeVos would be speaking to them on their graduation day. Some students and faculty members said they disagreed with DeVos’ views on public education, Title IX protections and comments she made calling historically black schools pioneers of school choice.
Having her at the ceremony is "raining on our parade," said graduate Carlisa Bydume.
Students said they wouldn’t have been opposed to DeVos’ visiting campus for a panel discussion or other event, but commencement was not the proper venue.
The University of Baltimore serves a diverse, non-traditional student body with many adult learners. Roughly 230 undergraduates and 130 graduate students were slated to receive degrees Monday, said university spokesman Chris Hart.
DeVos celebrated this point during her remarks, saying the country "must admit that a one-size-fits-all approach to education, at any stage, will not work."
“More institutions could learn from UB’s concerted effort to shape education around what students want and need — not the other way around,” she said.
About 60 percent of the school’s undergraduate students are minorities, according to the university website. At a school that serves so many African American students, some students said it seemed wrong to celebrate a member of the Trump administration.
“A commencement speech is supposed to be inspiring,” said Devon Washington, 26, who was one of the first two women to rise. “UB didn’t want to be inspired by her.”
Anne Oleszczuk, 26, decorated her graduation cap with a symbol of protest: the words "Nevertheless, she persisted" above the image of a pink “pussy” hat made popular at January’s Women’s March.
"She is coming to talk to people she marginalizes on a daily basis," Oleszczuk said.
There was additional security in place at the ceremony, the university spokesman said. University police worked with Baltimore police, and DeVos’ security team was also present.
The Department of Education declined to comment on the protests.