(ABC) — Recent graduates of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida were none too pleased with this year’s commencement speaker.
As U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos began to address the crowd at the school’s commencement address, students stood up, heckled DeVos and turned their backs.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you and particularly with those who have disagreed with the invitation for me to be there,” DeVos said today among the chorus of boos.
“One of the hallmarks of higher education and of democracy is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” she added.
The president of the school, Edison O. Jackson, warned the graduates to sit down. “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you,” he said. “Choose which way you want to go.”
The tense moment was the culmination of a contentious week between students of the historically-black college in Daytona, Florida, and the secretary. The NAACP Florida State Conference called on Jackson to resign and a petition had been filed with Change.org when the secretary had been invited to speak.
“In February, DeVos made an unsettling statement inferring that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), of which Bethune-Cookman is one, are the ‘real pioneers when it comes to school choice,’” the petition said.
“Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created in response to the exclusion of African Americans from mainstream institutions. Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs,” it continued.
DeVos walked back her previous comments about HBCUs in a statement on Sunday released by the U.S. Department of Education: “I am happy to see the president reaffirmed this Administration’s support for HBCUs. I will continue to be an advocate for them and for programs that make higher education more accessible to all students.”
According to the Change.org site, the online petition had collected more than 8,000 signatures. However, a group opposed to the visit said it had collected 60,000 signatures. The school has disputed the latter number.
Despite the boos, there were also bouts of applause when DeVos commended the students and their families.
“Somewhere along the line, a teacher went out of his or her way to make sure you succeeded. Please join me now in personally thanking and applauding those of you have served, serve or will serve as an educator,” she said.
DeVos also accepted an honorary degree from the university.