Early this week, students at the University of Baltimore protested the school’s announcement that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will deliver the school’s fall commencement address. However, University President Kurt Schmoke is sticking by his decision to invite DeVos despite growing student criticism.
In an e-mail to students and faculty, Schmoke said that he expected mixed emotions on the decision, but told students that differences in opinions are what makes the school a vibrant community. Schmoke invited Sec. DeVos in January, and offered her no compensation for speaking on the campus.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Schmoke admitted that DeVos had confirmed her appearance back in February, and he decided to wait until the beginning of the school year to make the announcement to the university.
As far as his reasoning for inviting her, he said that, at the time, the invitation was extended, DeVos hadn’t outlined her views on higher education and he wanted her to explain her platform and policies at the university’s commencement speech. Since January, when the university president invited her, she has outlined some changes to former President Barack Obama’s Title IX policies, which has received strong condemnation and opposition from Democrats.
Schmoke, who served as the Mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999 as a Democrat, said it is important for graduates to respect people’s differences.
“Having her at our university is in the best interest of the University of Baltimore because I’m trying to convey to our students the message that they’re graduating into a world in which not everyone agrees with, or has the same point of view on, every public policy issue that is before us,” Schmoke told The Chronicle.
Many people are calling the commencement arrangement a “political stunt” after it was recently announced that Schmoke’s cousin, Julian Schmoke Jr., was appointed Chief of the Student-Aid Enforcement Unit by Secretary DeVos. Schmoke has said that the appointment was “purely coincidental.”
In addition to protesting, students have planned mass walkouts during class. One alum, Kristen Mack, created a petition that has 3,035 signatures and rising. The University of Baltimore currently has 3,222 undergraduate students enrolled.
“Inviting an individual that has caused, is causing, and has potential to continue to cause direct harm to students at this school shows clear disregard for the safety and well-being of students,” the petition says.
Students are planning to send the request to Schmoke with hopes that the university will cancel her speech in December. Schmoke says he will continue to discuss the decision with students, but that his invitation will still stand.
In May, Sec. DeVos was booed while speaking at a historically black college graduation. Students at Bethune-Cookman University, a private university in Florida, protested her invitation to the commencement by also creating a petition. When the written plea did not work, students instead protested at the commencement speech by standing and turning their back to her while she spoke.