U. Balto. president troubled by ‘disinvited’ speakers

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos accepted an invitation to speak at the fall commencement exercises at the University of Baltimore, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Writing email from the city where riots broke out between black protesters and police over the brutality shown by police in the treatment of black citizens, especially of Freddie Gray, University of Baltimore President Kurt L Schmoke, the city’s former mayor, explained his decision to invite and then not to disinvite her.

“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,” he wrote.

Last May, Ms DeVos delivered a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, when dozens of graduates stood and turned their backs to her in protest.

Students in Baltimore staged a class walkout yesterday that culminated in a rally. Two Maryland gubernatorial candidates also were present, and one of them spoke forcefully against the planned appearance by Ms DeVos, the Baltimore Sun reports.

“Your graduation-day speaker is supposed to represent the best ideals of your school and highest aspirations of the students,” said Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP. “Betsy DeVos is quite simply the most anti-public-education secretary of education our country has ever had.”

But that’s kind of the point of inviting her to speak. I have written on this and other opinion blogs that having an anti-public-education advocate, a wealthy one at that, in the top post of education could turn out to be very bad news for people who will tear down our public schools.

Mr Schmoke, who is incidentally the first cousin of a US Department of Education employee, has invited her to speak about higher education, of course, not K-12. But even there, her views on Title IX have now been brought to the table, and higher ed is pushing back.

We’re never going to purge our system of corrupt charter schools if we let proponents of charter schools operate behind the scenes, under the radar of public scrutiny. But now that Ms DeVos is the head of a federal department, a member of the president’s cabinet, we can hear these views and discuss them in civil tones, I would hope.

It’s the same with climate change. Now that a climate change denier is the president of the United States, let’s talk about it. What are the questions? How can we investigate the answers? How can we implement solutions?

Voters in state after state, year after year, for the last several decades, have resoundingly defeated any efforts to privatize public schools—or any public institutions, for that matter. Yet we seem to be unable to shake the debate. One theory on why the debate continues is that people feel the world isn’t listening to them.

Disinviting Ms DeVos would be a failure to listen to an intelligent person who, quite simply, disagrees with most of the people in the country about how public education should be run. Hats off to Mr Schmoke and the university in our hometown: The decision to invite her, as you invited Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, last year, was timely and well-conceived. In order to bring on the debate, we need actual forums for it.

Mr Schmoke wrote:

What concerned me more was looking around the country and seeing places where speakers were disinvited because some their views were not acceptable to some on campus and thus invitations were rescinded. I was troubled by that. I think that the University of Baltimore is a place where freedom of speech is honored and will be upheld. And so I believe that if there is any protest that it will be civil and respectful.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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