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  September 11, 2017

Outrage at University for Choosing DeVos as Commencement Speaker

Students, professors and two gubernatorial candidates say Betsy DeVos's attacks against public education make her unqualified to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Baltimore
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JAISAL NOOR: We're live in Baltimore at the University of Baltimore where students are gathering, more are gonna be walking out of class, in protest of a decision that was announced on Friday that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the billionaire heiress who's a privatizer of public schools, her family has given millions of dollars to the Republican Party nationally and in Michigan, she's opposed guidelines for how to deal with sexual harassment and assault on school campus. She was announced to be the commencement speaker in the Fall of this year, and the students are outraged. And they're holding a protest here and a walkout.

I'm here with one of the students who has organized this. Can you tell us your name and how you came to this decision to have this protest?

HESS STINSON: Hi, my name is Hess Stinson and we came to this decision to have this protest because the school was supposed to be student-centered, and a school that fosters and creates leadership, and so we thought that we're not sure what the intent was in him inviting DeVos here. But who we are as a student body, we thought that it would be better to demonstrate that we are unsatisfied with the decision because she does not represent anyone who is going to be getting or receiving a public education.

KEANUU BROWN: Okay, so I'm Keanuu Smith Brown, I'm the Vice President for the Student Government Association. I'm here today to just support the students and what they're fighting for, and that is to not allow Betsy DeVos to come here as our commencement speaker in the Fall of 2017.

JAISAL NOOR: And to be clear, did the Student Government Association, did students have any say in this speak happening?

KEANUU BROWN: So on September 6th, they had a Faculty Center meeting where they announced it to the entire Senate and said that, "No, you have no say in this. This is what's gonna happen." We were told the day after, September 7th, when many of the other students found out and that was when we knew. Betsy DeVos is willing to cut funding for public education, billions of dollars. She's willing to cut funding for public grants and she's willing to roll back on the Title IX enforcement on campuses so of course, we cannot have a speaker who represents those policies and viewpoints here motivating and inspiring our students. We don't stand for that.

RON WILLIAMS: Well my name is Ron Kipling Williams. I'm actually an adjunct professor here at the university. I graduated here, got both my Bachelor’s and my Master’s degree, and I teach ethics here at the university. As a former student here, as a professor and as a community activist, it is an insult for someone who ... like Betsy DeVos, who's antithetical to all of which we stand for, to be a commencement speaker. This is a sacred time for students, so this is a time when we need somebody that is gonna reflect our values, that's going to move us forward, a progression, to where we need to be. And she is actually a regression. So that's why I'm out here. And it's actually to support the students and just support the community at large.

JAISAL NOOR: In a statement, University of Baltimore defended the move. Among those in attendance were two Democrats vying for their party's nomination for the Governor's race in 2018. Former NAACP head and Sanders campaign surrogate, Ben Jealous, and Alec Ross, a former Obama administration official.

BEN JEALOUS: She's been Secretary of Education now what, six, seven months? And in that time made it very clear that she's hostile to the very notion of public education itself, that she prefers vouchers. She's also frankly signaled that she intends to weaken the protections for students against sexual assault on campus, and at the same time made it easier for banks to charge students more.

ALEC ROSS: I'm opposed to her because I was a sixth grade teacher of Booker T Washington Middle School in West Baltimore. I have three kids in Baltimore's public schools and Betsy DeVos has waged war against public education. And that gets my blood up as a former teacher, my wife's a teacher, my three kids are in public schools. I think having Betsy DeVos come in at a moment of celebration, is just wrong.

JAISAL NOOR: We asked them if they thought the Democratic party support for charter schools and so-called school choice helped pave the way for the rise of DeVos.

Some critics, like Diane Ravitch, the former Under-Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, say DeVos is really picking up on policies the Obama administration supported with the race to the top, education privatization ... Do you have a different vision for public education?

BEN JEALOUS: In this case, what she's actually signaled she's attacking are things that the Obama administration pushed through. She's going right after the sexual assault protections that they made happen. Diane Ravitch, at different points, has supported and opposed every leader in the last 20 years if you go through her history. And I'm not up to date on her latest but what I would say is, this is a moment when the students across the country have made clear. We saw it in the Bernie campaign. But what we should be working aggressively is greater and greater college affordability. In Maryland we're pushing to make our public, two-year associate degree-granting institutions free as a first step. But as we end mass incarceration, we have to make public higher education free, all the way through.

JAISAL NOOR: Ravitch and others argue is that charter schools divide and they weaken public education as an institution, that opens it up to the private sector coming in because once people lose faith with public education, then they want an alternative, and then the private sector pops up as an alternative. And that's what happened in Michigan and places like Detroit where charter schools constitute a large amount of the public education there but they haven't proven to be any better than the normal public schools.

ALEC ROSS: Yeah, I think what we need to do is make sure that the good old-fashioned neighborhood elementary public schools, like where my kids go to school, so that they can become schools of choice. I feel like the jihad that exists in public education right now that pits charters against non-charters, ultimately does not serve the, like, of 97% of kids who can't go to charter schools well. And what I would really wish we would do is instead of saying, "Oh, charter schools can fix everything," I wish we would focus on making our neighborhood elementary, middle and high schools schools of choice.

JAISAL NOOR: For the full live stream of the event, go to


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