Bethune-Cookman President Addresses Campus Community on Betsy DeVos Commencement Invitation

Bethune-Cookman University President Edison Jackson has written a letter to the Wildcat community, addressing the school’s position on the invitation of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to serve as the keynote speaker for the school’s commencement exercises.
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Members of the Wildcat Nation,
In 1932, at the height of the U.S. Presidential campaign, the University of Chicago, one of this nation’s leading institutions of higher learning, invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s presidential candidate, to lecture on its campus. Faculty members, students, alums, and various members of the community were outraged at the University’s decision to have such a controversial figure to speak at this distinguished institution. Robert Hutchins, the University’s President at the time, responded to the criticism with the following quote: “the cure for ideas that we may oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition…free inquiry is indispensible to the good life, universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, and without free inquiry, they cease to be universities.”
Many of you have expressed your concerns about my decision to invite Betsy DeVos, the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education, as our 2017 spring commencement speaker. I understand your concerns, and I genuinely appreciate your willingness to voice those in a constructive manner. I also ask that you take the time to read and reflect upon this letter, and to attempt to gain a fuller understanding of my decision.
As a veteran educator, I am especially sensitive to balancing the notion of academic freedom with quelling potentially hateful and harmful rhetoric. Many of my colleague presidents have struggled with these issues over the past few months as the political and racial chasms in our county have deepened. Some have responded by rescinding invitations to potentially controversial speakers. That is not my intention. 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. If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.
One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore, and experience that which we deem as “other.” When we seek to 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. Additionally, 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.
As a private, non-partisan institution, B-CU is not in the business of endorsing any specific political perspective, nor are we in the business of prohibiting political perspectives that may differ from those of some members of our community. It is never my desire, and it should never be the desire of any committed educator, to stunt students’ intellectual, moral, social, and cultural development by decreasing opportunities that would stretch them beyond their comfort zones. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, our venerable founder, did all that she could during the nascent stages of this institution to equip her students with the necessary skills to navigate the precarious waters of fundamental disagreement. She modeled this by interacting with and uniquely engaging those who had to be convinced of her mission to provide education to her people. Dr. 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. 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. In the process, Dr. Bethune received tremendous support from Thomas White (White Sewing Machine Company), John D. Rockefeller (Oil Baron), James Proctor (Proctor and Gamble), Henry Flagler (Standard Oil), and President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, just to name a few. These individuals represented diverse political and social views, but Dr. Bethune invited them all to visit and support her institution. It is in that same vein that I have chosen to provide our students with an opportunity to hear from someone with whom they may disagree, but someone who has the ability to potentially influence their future.
Perhaps Secretary DeVos, much like those early initial skeptics that Dr. Bethune invited to visit and speak on this campus, will be inspired by the profound work that occurs here with our students. At the end of the day, it really is all about the success of our students, and if there are opportunities to possibly influence their success, then we must seize upon them.
Thank you for your continued support of our great institution. Much has transpired since Dr. Bethune birthed her vision for this place. As we continue our ascension to greatness, I seek your continued support in our efforts to provide our students with a world-class education that challenges and stretches them to be the very best that they can be.
With gratitude for the past and hope in the future,
Dr. Edison O. Jackson
6th President, Bethune-Cookman University
The invitation has drawn widespread criticism from HBCU advocates and BCU stakeholders, with thousands signing a petition appealing for Jackson and the school’s board of trustees to rescind the offer.