University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke defended his decision to invite U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to speak at the school's fall commencement, even as dozens of students protested Monday and thousands signed a petition demanding he rescind the offer.
Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore, said students should reserve judgment on DeVos, a controversial member of President Donald Trump's cabinet. Hosting her, he said, is "in the best tradition of the university."
"The university stands for freedom of speech," Schmoke said. "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."
Dozens of students participated in a "class walk out" demonstration Monday afternoon, the first of two protests planned for the day.
Tracy Johnson, a junior, was among them. She stood up midway through her global ethics class and walked out, carrying a neon orange sign that read, #NeverBetsy.
"Commencement is not the place for Betsy DeVos," Johnson said. "We're a public institution. She stands against everything we represent."
DeVos accepted the invitation. The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on the protest on Monday.
A consistent critic of public schools, DeVos supports "school choice" and is a proponent of charter schools and school vouchers. She said her vision will create competition and improve public schools, but teachers' unions and other supporters of public education say the secretary's ideas would undermine the schools that serve the majority of America's students.
"Your graduation day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of your school and highest aspirations of the students," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous said at the rally. "Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public education secretary of education our country has ever had."
Alec Ross, another Democrat running for governor and a former city schools teacher, also spoke at the event. He thanked students for their activism and added that DeVos is "at war with our public school children."
In a survey disseminated Friday by the student government association, more than 80 percent of respondents said they did not want DeVos to speak at the Dec. 18 graduation ceremony. Nearly 3,000 had signed a petition asking Schmoke to rescind the invitation by the time the rally began at noon in Gordon Plaza, a student gathering place.
Trevor Ebert, a senior and self-proclaimed proud product of Baltimore public schools, said the last thing he wants in the culminating moment of his public education — his graduation ceremony in December — is to hear from DeVos.
Ebert, is secretary of the student government association, which said in a statement that it "stands in support of our students in asking that Secretary DeVos' invitation is rescinded."
Mariame Dangnokho, the SGA president, wrote in a letter to students that the group was not involved in discussions about bringing DeVos to commencement. The organization is hosting a meeting with Schmoke and provost Darlene Smith on Wednesday afternoon, and students have been invited to attend and voice their concerns.
Ebert said he plans to demonstrate during graduation if DeVos' invitation still stands by December.
"Our voices will be heard," he said.
When DeVos spoke at Bethune-Cookman University's commencement last spring, students at the historically black institution in Florida booed her and some turned their backs as she spoke. DeVos previously called HBCUs "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," a comment that drew widespread criticism after people pointed out that the institutions were created as a response to racial segregation.
Schmoke said he hopes that if there are demonstrations at commencement, they're done in a "civil manner."
Students "are entering a world where there's not one point of view on major public policy issues," he said.
News of the university's invitation to DeVos emerged the same week that she announced intentions to rewrite Obama-era rules on campus sexual assault policy. Many of the protesters Monday carried signs about the importance of Title IX protections.
Politically divisive speakers have generated heated reactions at college campuses across the nation in recent months, and some student protests have led to cancellations of the scheduled talks.
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, called this a "disturbing trend."
"It's starting to compromise the ability of students to hear different voices on campus," he said. "There's a culture that's developed in academia where people think the right response to a viewpoint they don't like is to try and silence it."
Mike Lurie, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, said: "The USM respects the right of every campus in the system, including the University of Baltimore, to invite and host speakers from a broad diversity of backgrounds, opinions and perspectives. The USM equally respects the right of every community member opposed to the views of any particular speaker to make their objections known in a safe and respectful manner."
Some students said they would welcome DeVos to a town hall discussion on campus, where students could ask questions and create a dialogue with her. But the commencement address, students said, provides DeVos a one-sided platform during an event that should be focused on celebrating student achievement.
"We're a public school and a lot of us are products of public education," said Hess Stinson, a freshman who helped organize the protest. "It doesn't make sense to invite someone here who is detrimental to the public education system at large."