DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Education Secretary Betsy DeVos struggled to deliver her commencement speech at a historically black college Wednesday, as the crowd drowned out her words with roaring boos.
Her remarks at Bethune-Cookman University on the importance of education were overpowered by calls from the audience to "shut the (expletive) up" and "not a Wildcat," the name of the university's teams.
Jeers from the audience persisted throughout her 20-minute speech, when she was introduced and while she accepted an honorary degree.
At one point, university President Edison Jackson interrupted DeVos to warn students, "If this behavior continues, we can mail the degrees to you." At least one person was escorted out of the arena.
Before the ceremony, Jackson asked reporters, "Can you imagine how many institutions would love to have the highest education officer in all the land be their commencement speaker?"
Online petitions managed to collect signatures from about 60,000 people who don't. A handful of protesters from the NAACP, Florida Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, also flocked to the Ocean Center, Daytona Beach's convention center, the site of the graduation.
Still, Jackson defended the decision.
"We have always been in the business of making friends, and if you don't have friends, it's very difficult to raise money," he said during a news conference before the noon ceremony. "Her department controls roughly 80% of Title IV monies, as well as grants. So why wouldn't we want to make friends?"
In February, President Trump met with leaders from America's historically black colleges and universities when he signed an executive order to move assistance for the institutions from the Department of Education to the White House.
The HBCU leaders in attendance described a bizarre meeting — the same one where aide Kellyanne Conway was pictured kneeling on a couch — with "very little listening to HBCU presidents."That's where, school officials said, the conversation started to bring DeVos to Bethune-Cookman's graduation. The decision to have DeVos address the some-300 students graduating this spring came immediate under scrutiny.
Opponents pointed to DeVos' past comments about HBCUs as the "real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
Critics quickly slammed DeVos' statement, arguing HBCUs were the only choice.
Clifford Porter, assistant vice president for institutional advancement, said while the university is "very aware of the misstatement," he hoped Wednesday's event would be an opportunity to educate DeVos about HBCUs.
"Some of you may not like it, but she's here, we're welcoming her and we're building new relationships," Jackson said.
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