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We’re going to suggest an official motto for the Trump Administration: “That Probably Could Have Gone Better.” It just seems to fit so many situations, like the healthcare bill dying twice before pissing everyone off, Trump’s First Military Fuckup, the Great Big Syria Revenge Bombing, the Obama Wire Tapp, pleasing Democrats by firing James Comey for being mean to Hillary Clinton… you get the idea. At least when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went to Daytona Beach, Florida, on Wednesday to deliver a commencement speech at historically black university Bethune-Cookman U, it didn’t result in any loss of life or constitutional crisis. But still, That Probably Could Have Gone Better.

Students and alumni of Bethune-Cookman had protested the decision to invite DeVos from the moment it was announced, and this week delivered several different petitions with a total of some 60,000 signatures calling on the administration to withdraw the invitation, so it should surprise no one that when DeVos began to speak, may among the graduating class stood and turned their backs to her in protest. Why were the young folks so angry and rude? It wasn’t simply that DeVos had made that astonishingly clueless statement celebrating historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as bastions of providing “more options” to students under segregation, as if Jim Crow were merely a matter of unfortunate market incentives. That heaping pile of dumbth — which DeVos sort of acknowledged was off-key — was plenty to start with, but students and alumni at the ceremony also said they objected to DeVos’s policy commitments, mostly her devotion to dismantling public schools in the name of “choice”:

Several said they believed she would make it harder for them and other students to get financial aid or to pay back their college loans. Some stressed they had attended traditional public schools, which they feared would be undermined by DeVos’ promotion of charter schools and vouchers.

“I just feel like she cannot relate,” said Jasmine Smith, a 21-year-old incoming junior from Fort Lauderdale.

Brent Franklin, who traveled from Los Angeles to attend his daughter’s graduation, said DeVos “knows nothing about HBCUs and how they were founded.”

The students were also plenty angry at the university’s president, Edison O. Jackson, who had invited DeVos in the first place, and whose response to the protests struck many as condescending. The boos started before DeVos even began speaking, when Jackson introduced Trump Official Black Person Omarosa Manigault, who has a White House job because she was on “The Apprentice” and is appropriately deferential to Mr. Trump, sir. Students booed Omarosa, and Jackson took the mic to say, “You don’t know her. You don’t know her story” — which coincidentally is what Kid Zoom used to say when I insisted he pick up his socks.

Then it was time to give DeVos an honorary degree, and while some faculty on the dais applauded, the students booed; once she began speaking, backs were turned, boos got louder, and one student was escorted out after giving a Black Power salute.

DeVos certainly tried to say all the right things about civility and respectful dialogue, and at one point addressed a specific issue students had raised, saying the Trump administration has proposed restoring funding for year-round Pell Grants (as opposed to grants only disbursed during the academic year). She even tried to position herself as the students’ advocate, saying “I am at the table fighting on your behalf, and on behalf of all students across this great nation,” a claim that was met with loud skepticism, particularly after Donald Trump last week said he thought special funding for HBCUs might be unconstitutional, a position he later backtracked on, promising in a statement his “unwavering support” for the institutions.

At one point during DeVos’s speech, Jackson — a gentleman who appears to be constructed entirely of movie cliches about clueless academic bureaucrats — admonished the students that if they didn’t sit down and behave right now their diplomas would be mailed to them and they wouldn’t walk across the stage to receive them, and how would they like that, hmmm? HMMMM? (We have embellished only slightly.)

Earlier in the day, DeVos did have a sit-down with a dozen student leaders, who seemed pleased that she’d come to listen to their concerns; former student body president Jacari Harris was awfully happy about the meeting:

“She’s awesome. I’m so glad she’s here,” Harris said. “She’s very transparent. She has a listening ear. We told her about some of the issues we are facing, about students who are single parents or come from single-parent families, even students who are homeless, and she agreed that we need to find a way to address all of this. She knows the need. It was a great dialogue.”

In her speech, DeVos returned several times to the theme of listening carefully to those we disagree with and hearing them out, in the name of dialogue and growth and compromise, which sounds simply wonderful and which may actually describe the operating principles a Trump administration in some wonderful alternate universe.

In a statement Wednesday night, DeVos also said all the right things, including a nice line about the students who went all First Amendment at her:

“One of the hallmarks of higher education, and of democracy, is the ability to converse with and learn from those with whom we disagree,” DeVos said. “I have respect for all those who attended [the commencement], including those who demonstrated their disagreement with me.”

That sounds great! If only we had any confidence it meant anything at all under this president. Had Trump himself been there, can anyone doubt he’d have yelled “Get ’em out of here” at the students and reminisced about the good old days when protesters would be taken out on a stretcher?

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[Politico / Atlantic / WaPo]

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