The Lesson Some HBCU Presidents Should Learn from Bethune-Cookman’s Commencement Mistake

There is no way to sugar coat this: Dr. Edison Jackson, president of Bethune-Cookman University, simply eff’d up! There is no reason to wonder why people are calling for his resignation. In case you’ve been under a boulder in the last few days, here’s the synopsis: Historically black college administration invites the U.S. Secretary of Education with the worst approval rating in the history of the office (maybe an exaggeration but not likely), Bestsy DeVos, as the commencement speaker. Why is this a problem you may ask? Others have done the work here, so I will allow you to do some research. For the purpose of this piece, just know he really messed up, and here’s why:

Graduating from college is one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments beyond graduating from high school in the lives of many Black students. The first graduation (High School) is for family, but the second is most definitely for us. Let me repeat that: College graduation is for the students! Yes, its good for alumni to come back, give a little bit of money (we need y’all (younger alum too) to dig a little deeper in those pockets though), reminisce and stroll the yard , and even celebrate the anniversary of their graduation, but that moment is for the graduating senior. All of the late night study sessions and cramming, the papers and the projects, the Bae who could have been wifey or hubby but it just didn’t work out, the countless verbal squabbles with the Financial Aid office… All of that was endured to turn up, wild out, and tear up the stage in celebration during commencement.

And contrary to popular administrative practices, the administration has one job: Ensure the graduation turn up is mad real, and provide inspiration for the next step of the journey, in which that is the responsibility of the commencement speaker. So now you know why he eff’d up, here’s what HBCU Presidents can learn:

  1. Commencement is for the Students: Presidents, I know, you want to celebrate the success of the institution, and put on a good face for current donors, build relationships with future benefactors, and basically put on for the whole world to see. I get it, and I get it. But truthfully, all the students care about in that moment is celebrating this truth: “WE MADE IT, WE DONE, WE FINISHED AND WE DONE. WE OUT!” That’s why hundreds of family and friends are there, that’s why the hair is laid, and the caps are decorated. But I’m not telling you something you don’t know… but I do believe Bethune-Cookman serves as a reminder that you should be more mindful of in commencement planning.
  2. The Speaker is for the Students: Let’s just be honest: this moment during the program can be the most inspiring or the most boring- a time for selfies, text messages with the late family members asking, “where are you?”, and twenty minutes on social media. The goal, however, is for it to be inspiring, to be a push toward the vision of the future laid on the hearts of all the graduates. So this means they want to see someone and hear someone who can do just that. Quite frankly, students want someone who looks like them, represents how they want see themselves as successful, and BLACK! Yea, they want to see Black success. That’s one of the reasons why they are at your institution: to be a successful, educated black person, making moves like Big Sean in the world they are about to enter.  Dont’ deprive them of this! We know every one of you can’t afford or have access to President Obama, P. Diddy, or some other A-List celeb or public figure, but do your best to find someone who will inspire and motivate the graduate.
  3. When You Dont Listen to Your Students, You Will Get Embarrassed!: I can’t be any more direct here. On a day meant for students, please listen to their suggestions, their desires, and include them in your planning. I’m not suggesting you give them total control, but allow their voices to be heard on this day. You too will be making empty threats amidst boos and deafening words of disapproval seeking to save face because protest will happen, and the revolution will be televised… or at least viral on social media.
  4. Mess Up Commencement and New Alumni Giving Drops 100 Percent:  Okay, maybe another exaggeration, but I’m willing to bet every graduate of Bethune-Cookman’s 2017 class is not considering giving back financially, ever! Homecoming events, maybe. A couple of football games, possibly. Give money to the school… HELL NAW! Every HBCU alumnus knows the importance of giving back to our beloved institution. When we saw shows like A Different World, we knew we would “rep our sets” til we die. Students were not aware of some of the internal challenges we would face at an HBCU, so the last thing needed is another reason for graduates to get their degrees and chunk the deuce like Chris Brown… forever.

Let’s face it, what happened at Bethune-Cookman could have been avoided. Every student I know thought that was a crazy idea. For too long, our HBCU’s have attempted to make our institutions less Black in order to get White dollars. Instead of making our schools more appealing to students of color with attractive majors and areas of study, exciting campus life, dynamic athletic programs, and daring, passionate faculty, they have sought alliances with people like Betsy DeVos who have ZERO understanding of the importance and significance of HBCU’s.

I don’t assume to know how difficult of a task it is to lead an institution, however, I do know this current generation well. I know they care deeply about their future, and while many adults may not think so, they are reaching back into the annals of our history seeking lessons of old to push them toward a prosperous end. And if we keep failing them like Dr. Jackson of Bethune-Cookman did, we will push them away from our great institutions, and into a world where “great again” has minimal opportunities for them. Presidents, how will  you direct them? What memories will you leave them with? Will it end in protest or proclamation? It’s up to you now!

Image result for bethune cookman students protest


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