BALTIMORE — About 30 people gathered outside of the Modell Lyric Opera House on Monday in protest of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was set to give the commencement speech to University of Baltimore’s fall graduating class—and a couple hours later inside, 40 or so UB graduates stood with their backs to DeVos in protest during her speech.
Organized by FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture and the Maryland chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and attended by a number of University of Baltimore students and faculty, the rally in front of the Lyric highlighted DeVos’ connection to the Trump administration (“White Supremacy controls who is believed” one banner read), her aggressive pro-charter school position, and her roll back of Title IX, the law against gender-based discrimination that was expanded under President Obama to require schools to combat sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus.
“It seems strange to invite someone whose goal is to defund and destroy public education to a public university,” said Ian Power, an assistant professor of integrated arts at UB (Power was also behind a recent “Demand Mayor Pugh and BOPA restore the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade” petition). “I’m in favor of Title IX and even though charter schools for some students offer better resources, all that does is provide the ones left behind with fewer resources. This is the Republican tactic of defunding something public and then saying ‘It doesn’t work so we had to shut it down.’”
FORCE’s Saida Agostini stressed DeVos’ commentary recasting concern about sexual assault on the accused by focusing on false accusations, which are incredibly low, according to every legitimate study out there.
“Betsy DeVos has had a pretty intensely anti-survivor position in her administration, particularly with critical Title IX protections by heightening the burden of proof for survivors on campus,” Agostini said. “So we’re really concerned about that as well as her other actions that continue to destabilize survivors, people of color, those who are differently-abled, queer folks. When we talk about increasing the burden of proof for survivors, what we’re really talking about is who is worthy of belief in campuses and our communities.”
“Our mission is all about making sure that all students have a safe place to learn including those students who are LGBT,” said Jabari Lyles, executive director of GLSEN. “We know that many of the actions that Betsy DeVos have set forth, the ones that she’s already done and the one that she intends to do will harm students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. I think back to the guidance that she rescinded earlier this year and that just goes to show that she is not here to protect trans students and that is our mission.”
As parents and faculty began entering the Lyric for the ceremony, word got to those outside at the rally that some faculty sitting on the stage for the graduation wore large buttons that read, “Support and Defend Public Schools” and many students had written anti-DeVos and anti-Trump messages on the top of their caps. There was concern that UB would prevent faculty from wearing the buttons on stage, and leading up to the event some UB professors expressed concern that joining the protest might result in retribution from the university.
Back in September, the announcement that DeVos would give the commencement speech resulted in significant protest from UB students, a wildly popular Medium post from UB student Rachael Edwards, and a statement by the UB Student Government Association that they were not informed of DeVos’ booking until far too late and that it was essentially pushed through by UB President and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
“Your graduation day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of the school and the highest aspirations of the students and Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public education secretary of education our country has ever had,” Democratic candidate for governor Ben Jealous said at an anti-DeVos rally at UB back in September. “In her very short tenure she has made it easier for banks to profiteer off of students, she has threatened the very hard-won protections students have against sexual assault that President Obama pushed through, and she has attacked the very notion of public education itself.”
Anticipation over what would happen when DeVos spoke was palpable during the ceremony before she took to the podium. Earlier this year, DeVos spoke at historically black college Bethune-Cooke University, where graduates booed her and turned their backs.
When Schmoke mentioned DeVos’ name, there was some scant “boo”-ing, which increased during his generous introduction of her.
“It’s quite an honor to have a person whose powerful recommendations have had such an impact not only on education but the quality of life of many of us here,” Schmoke said. “She has been involved in the education reform movements and clearly involved in the debate about the ways in which education is going in our country from top to bottom.”
As DeVos began her speech, two women stood in the front row just feet away from DeVos with their backs facing her. One held up her graduation cap, which had “Not My Commencement Speaker” written on it. Soon, another joined the two and then slowly more students stood up with their back to DeVos staring straight ahead, some with their fists up. Slowly, it grew to about 40 University of Baltimore graduates turning their back on DeVos in protest, including the parents of some of the students.
“In a fast-paced modern world, it is healthy to develop an interior life, to be silent, to pray,” DeVos declared, as cameras flashed, taking photos of solemn students staring the other way. DeVos’ speech, which leaned heavily on deceptive rhetoric about “choice” when promoting private charter schools along with a smattering of loosely inspirational graduation speech platitudes, was besides the point and a burst of claps, boos, and disinterested chatter rose up as DeVos walked off the stage.
“I would have never had the opportunity to pursue higher education without there being an option to go to a public school. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” said Emily Wenker, a UB graduate who stood with her back to DeVos. “Today I graduated summa cum laude after working my way through school for seven years. Betsy DeVos does not represent me as a student. I stood up because I earned this day, and it was disrespectful to us, as graduates, to be misrepresented.”
Rachael Edwards chose not to attend the ceremony at all.
“Today was my undergraduate graduation,” Edwards said. “I have been waiting for this moment for years. The reason why I did not attend graduation today is because I believe it devalues University of Baltimore’s mission to ensure students are protected. ‘Protected’ meaning down to the speakers we invite into safe spaces. The Trump administration, which includes Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, unleashed a handful of policies that undermine marginalized communities. I refused to go because I do not believe in giving platforms to anyone that represents an administration that is hell bent on destroying vulnerable communities.”
Brandon Soderberg is managing editor of the Baltimore Beat, a sister publication of the Blade. Additional reporting by Jaisal Noor of the Real News Network.