University of Baltimore students protest Betsy DeVos as fall commencement speaker. President Kurt Schmoke says the university will not rescend the invitation to speak. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
I was appalled to hear that the University of Baltimore had chosen U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as its fall graduation speaker. Until that moment, the scheduled Dec. 18 commencement represented the proud end of my long journey toward my undergraduate degree. My family was planning to fly across the country to attend the ceremony; my wife was planning a party. All that changed when I heard the university had chosen to make the event a platform for a presidential administration and a political movement that stands openly for white supremacy; whose policies ensure the subjugation of the poor, of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community; who encourage the deportation of certain immigrants brought here as children; and who judge the fitness of the brave members of our military based only upon the state of their genitals at birth.
University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke said in a letter to the student community this week that he wanted Ms. DeVos to use commencement to "present her views on higher education issues of her choice." Commencement is not and should never be an opportunity to share political views. It is a celebration of the hard work and intellectual growth that students have invested over the years. It is a recognition that students are starting a new life with their new degree and all the knowledge and experience that goes along with it. "To commence," in fact, means "to begin" — to begin the new future that higher education promises.
I am a white, straight, upper middle class male with all the associated privilege, but the student body of the University of Baltimore is particularly diverse. Since I enrolled at UB in 2012 to earn my bachelor's degree in digital communications, many of my classmates have been people of color, lower income people, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, single parents, older students with full-time jobs, people who manage several jobs — not to mention the logistical challenges such as day care and transportation — as they try to support families while striving toward the dream of higher education. Because of my privilege, I can't pretend to understand their experience. I can speak only for myself.
In choosing Ms. DeVos as the commencement speaker, the University of Baltimore is taking away from all its students our proudest moment. Ms. DeVos will use the occasion of our accomplishment as a platform for a political movement and a presidential administration that decry higher education as an unnecessary status symbol of the "liberal elite." Why would we honor such beliefs at a public university graduation?
In his communication to students, Mr. Schmoke invoked the idea of "freedom of speech." He said that the university preserved the concept of freedom of speech by welcoming Ms. DeVos to our commencement. In fact, freedom of speech only guarantees the ability to share opinions without legal consequences or government persecution. It does not guarantee there will be no consequences, no matter how abhorrent and exclusionary the opinion. The consequences here, for this political figure, should be that she and her political movement are not welcome to dominate the seminal event at a public university that (supposedly) celebrates diversity and opportunity for all.
Monday, I left my evening class early to stand in solidarity with my fellow students. We gathered on campus to protest the appearance of this political figure and this political movement at our commencement. At this time, it is the most I can do to right this wrong.
I call upon Mr. Schmoke and the leadership of the University of Baltimore — and beyond that, Chancellor Robert Caret and the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland: Listen to us, the students. We are the future of the University of Baltimore. We are the prospective donors on which the university will rely for its future. We are the future of this city, torn by its own deep-rooted issues of racial inequity. We represent the future for our families. Put a stop to this. Let us have a moment to celebrate our accomplishment in peace.