By Cynthia A. Bond Hopson, Ph.D., Assistant General Secretary
The Black College Fund, The United Methodist Church
Graduation from college is a big deal, especially among African American families. Everybody and THEIR cousin is there to applaud when their “baby’s” name is called. With Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many graduates are the first in their families to earn a degree.
Journalist and thought leader Roland Martin spoke to the 125 graduates at Philander Smith College Saturday and challenged the students to not just be present but to be a presence. To make a difference, to matter. His words were powerful, inspiring and well received by the 2,000 people who were in attendance, an average of 16 people per graduate. This included spouses, parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, neighbors, church members– everybody.
With this in mind, it saddens my heart when these celebrations become politicized, objects of protests and disruption and the focus becomes more about the speakers than the graduates. Speakers are invited, usually paid to come, often given honorary degrees to garner loyalty and future support, so controversy shouldn’t be a part of the equation. Nevertheless, students and alums are more vocal about their wishes these days and it is unfortunate that Bethune Cookman University’s graduates and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos clashed during such an important occasion.
BCU graduates and alums are some of the nicest people I know. They are reasonable, respectful, and well educated. On a given day they wouldn’t turn their backs or boo speakers, or in any other manner be disrespectful. Stand strong for what they believe, yes, but be disrespectful, no way. While I don’t know the now Dr. DeVos or any other billionaires, I suspect she’s a fine, upstanding person, passionate about her causes and strong enough to weather storms, whether they’re ones she created or ones she inherited. On Wednesday, they both deserved better.
Dr. DeVos may someday become a great friend to BCU and influence increased funding for other HBCU now that she’s an alum of one of these *schools of choice. Let’s hope she makes a sizeable gift to her alma mater, but as many others have said, when/if she visits our campuses promoting President Donald Trump’s agenda, she needs ample time and space for dialogue, not just monologue.
I’d like to offer these gentle reminders going forth:
- Commencement is about the graduates. It is a time for celebration of possibilities–all that has been sacrificed, accomplished and all that can be. Civility and decorum must come into the arenas alongside the honor guard and Pomp & Circumstance. Tolerance and respect should be seated on the stage along with the dignitaries. Guests should be reminded to honor themselves and their graduates by adhering to instructions so every name can be heard.
- Diverse voices are important and we all like to be challenged and inspired, however, if students aren’t part of the speaker selection process, please add them now and listen to their concerns early and often. Like Christmas, they’re the reason for the season.
- DeVos is right. “We will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mind-set of grace.” I interpret grace, simply put, as I see you, I hear you, and I will treat you justly and honorably every day, not just at commencement time. Dr. Bethune, in her Last Will and Testament, urged us to recognize common problems and unite to solve them. We can and we must.
- The Trump administration, barely 111 days in power, must continue to be educated about the value and plight of our nation’s HBCU. The amazing work done at these campuses every day is essential to the stability of our families and communities, and it contributes significantly to our national and global readiness. BCU and the other 10 United Methodist-related HBCU will proudly unleash nearly 4,000 graduates this commencement season. The Class of 2017 will courageously join thousands of alums around the world who serve and strive for peace, justice, understanding, equity and fairness.
The General Board of Higher Education’s Black College Fund was created in 1972 to support the 11 UMC-related HBCU. The Fund supports Bennett College, Bethune Cookman University, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Huston-Tillotson University, Meharry Medical College, Paine College, Philander Smith College, Rust College and Wiley College.