Many of you have expressed your concerns about my decision to invite Betsy DeVos, the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education, as our 2017 spring commencement speaker. I understand your concerns, and I genuinely appreciate your willingness to voice those in a constructive manner. I also ask that you take the time to read and reflect upon this letter, and to attempt to gain a fuller understanding of my decision.
As a veteran educator, I am especially sensitive to balancing the notion of academic freedom with quelling potentially hateful and harmful rhetoric. Many of my colleague presidents have struggled with these issues over the past few months as the political and racial chasms in our county have deepened. Some have responded by rescinding invitations to potentially controversial speakers. That is not my intention. I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with, or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community. If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.
One of the lasting hallmarks of higher education is its willingness to engage, explore, and experience that which we deem as “other.” When we seek to shelter our students and campus communities from views that are diametrically opposed to their own, we actually leave our students far less capable of combating those ideas. Additionally, the sheer diversity of our human family requires us to listen to and understand one another. We cannot, and we will not, ever accomplish this if we continue to exist in ideological, social, and racial silos.
Perhaps Secretary DeVos, much like those early initial skeptics that Dr. Bethune invited to visit and speak on this campus, will be inspired by the profound work that occurs here with our students. At the end of the day, it really is all about the success of our students, and if there are opportunities to possibly influence their success, then we must seize upon them.
Thank you for your continued support of our great institution. Much has transpired since Dr. Bethune birthed her vision for this place. As we continue our ascension to greatness, I seek your continued support in our efforts to provide our students with a world-class education that challenges and stretches them to be the very best that they can be.
With gratitude for the past and hope in the future,
Dr. Edison O. Jackson
6th President, Bethune-Cookman University”