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DeVos' UB speech rings hollow

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivers the University of Baltimore's winter commencement address. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

I'm a faculty member in the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Baltimore. I have a PhD in communication arts, and I am an analyst of public communication. I attended the graduation ceremony featuring keynote speaker Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, Monday afternoon. I wore a button affixed to my academic regalia that declared "Support and Defend Public Education."

While some of my colleagues chose not to attend commencement out of protest of Secretary DeVos' policies, I attended the ceremony, despite my misgivings, because graduation is the most important thing that we do as college professors. Twice a year, we celebrate the achievements of our students and send them out into the world to leave their marks. Students at the University of Baltimore have worked harder than most to earn their walk across that stage. Commencement felt extraordinarily important for them and, as a result, for me.

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As a scholar of communication, I feel well equipped to analyze Secretary DeVos' speech. Communication analysts often begin their task by identifying the genre, or type, of communication that is occurring, recognizing that there are similarities in speeches delivered by speakers facing identical circumstances. The commencement address is a much maligned and often very formulaic communication format. As scholars have pointed out, audiences at graduations expect to hear speeches that include ceremonial language and messages of inspiration and advice for graduates.

Secretary DeVos' speech included all the typical elements of a commencement address. She extolled the values of UB, including our motto "Knowledge that Works," and she attempted to connect herself to those values. While UB has long been a university that caters to adult learners, first generation college students, working parents and military veterans, Ms. DeVos claimed that she identified with this mission because she has worked to empower parents to choose schools for their children. She has sought to build, she claimed, an inclusive and accessible education for all, and as such, she understood what we at UB have spent our careers trying to do. She told the stories of several UB graduates who had battled extraordinary odds to get their degrees, appropriating their voices to endear herself to the audience.

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William Keith Pierre, Bachelor of Science graduate, stood with his fist raised and back turned toward the stage during the University of Baltimore Winter Commencement keynote speech delivered by Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Lyric Theater. Other graduates and a few in the audience also stood with their backs to the stage during her speech.
William Keith Pierre, Bachelor of Science graduate, stood with his fist raised and back turned toward the stage during the University of Baltimore Winter Commencement keynote speech delivered by Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the Lyric Theater. Other graduates and a few in the audience also stood with their backs to the stage during her speech. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The genre of commencement address is also often filled with platitudes and forward-looking charges to inspire the graduates. Ms. DeVos also included these elements in her speech. In the final portion of her address she issued three challenges to UB graduates: She challenged them to be thoughtful, to be selfless and to persevere.

We may be tempted to dismiss this commencement address as typical platitudes. It was, after all. It checked all the boxes of commencement speech characteristics.

Yet, as someone who believes that speech matters, I cannot just accept the platitudes typical of the genre.

I cannot accept the charge to be thoughtful and considerate from the mouthpiece of an administration that routinely speaks without reflecting on the consequences of its words for the marginalized among us.

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I cannot accept the charge to be selfless from someone who has rolled back protections for students surviving sexual assault on campus.

I cannot accept the charge to persevere from someone who has made it much more difficult for our students to do so. Indeed, Secretary DeVos has promoted private charter schools (with mixed academic records) while draining funding for public schools that have long been the lifeblood of American democracy. Many of our students at UB are graduates of public high schools, as am I. Secretary DeVos has ended information-sharing agreements with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which protected students from predatory for-profit colleges and student loan financiers. Most of our students are financing their education through loans.

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed University of Baltimore graduates during their winter commencement, prompting some protests from students and faculty members. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)

Ultimately, I cannot accept her co-optation of the mission of UB under the umbrella of choice and flexibility. Yes, we at UB offer flexible degree programs with online and evening offerings for our diverse learners. But Ms. DeVos has made it harder, not easier, for us to fulfill that mission.

Instead, I choose to reject these platitudes and stand in support of the students who respectfully and silently rose and turned their backs on Secretary DeVos while she spoke. I choose to add my voice to those who argue against her policies, believing as I do, that they're bad for Baltimore, bad for education and bad for democracy.

History does not reward those who keep silent in the face of policies that are unjust.

That's a powerful and inspiring message for a commencement speech.

Jennifer Keohane is a faculty member at the University of Baltimore; her email is jkeohane@ubalt.edu.

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