College president defends choice of DeVos as commencement speaker

The president of a private historically black college in Florida where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered her first commencement speech in her new role Wednesday defended his invitation to her in a powerful, eloquent essay that stressed the importance of free speech and an open mind.

Edison O. Jackson, president of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, said his decision to invite DeVos was made in the spirit of the college’s founder, the late civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as president of the National Association of Colored Women and founded the National Council of Negro Women.

“Some have rescinded invitations to potentially controversial speakers,” Jackson wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. “That is not my intention with DeVos. I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.”

Some students had pressed Jackson to disinvite DeVos, and some even called for his resignation.

Jackson said that inviting DeVos to speak at the college was precisely the kind of outreach that the school’s founder had conducted when trying to rally support for a high learning institution for African Americans.

“Bethune depended upon the support of people who were scattered all along the ideological and political spectrum – some she agreed with, and some she did not,” Jackson noted. “She understood, however, the great value of education, and she understood the nuances of how to balance delicate and difficult relationships in order to achieve her ultimate goal of building an institution of higher learning, of which we are the beneficiaries today.”

Jackson mentioned various leaders to whom Bethune turned as she sought support for the school.

“These leaders represented diverse political and social views, and Bethune invited them all to visit and support her institution,” Jackson said. “It is in that same vein that I have invited DeVos to speak.”

Jackson said he was well aware of the decision by some university administrators to rescind invitations to speakers when they faced fierce opposition. He said he would not follow suit.

“One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore and experience that which we deem as ‘other,’” Jackson wrote. “When we shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas.”

Jackson added: “The sheer diversity of our human family requires us to listen to and understand one another. We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social and racial silos.”