A group of Ave Maria University graduates are calling on their alma mater to rescind its invitation to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to speak at the university’s commencement ceremony in May.
Ave Maria President Jim Towey announced DeVos had accepted the offer in January.
Ave Maria’s “endorsement” of DeVos is at odds with the university’s Catholic and liberal arts values and “casts the University in a pointedly partisan light,” the alumni wrote in an open letter sent to the Naples Daily News.
“A liberal arts institution, especially one of a Catholic character, must be free of political indoctrination to be the proper marketplace of ideas for its members,” the letter reads.
Furthermore, the alumni write, “Mrs. DeVos’s policies are callous and unjust towards marginalized persons.”
Since taking office, DeVos has spoken to disapproving crowds at the graduation ceremonies of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and the University of Baltimore.
The letter, signed by 36 Ave Maria graduates from the classes of 2006 to 2012, cites DeVos’ comments on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at her Senate confirmation hearing as one example of her divergence from Catholic values.
DeVos stated the enforcement of the federal law, which regulates how public schools provide services to students with disabilities, is best left up to the states. In October, the Education Department rescinded 72 guidance documents that outlined the rights of students covered by the law, also known as IDEA.
DeVos’ statement showed “both ignorance of IDEA as a federal law and tacit approval of states that disenfranchise disabled children,” the letter reads. “Mrs. DeVos’s (sic) actions are hostile to a culture of life and of advocacy for the marginalized among us.”
One of the letter’s authors, Matthew Barry, a Sarasota-based attorney, said many of the signatories are special education teachers or have family members with disabilities.
Learning that Ave Maria planned to honor someone they view as insensitive to people with disabilities was disheartening, he said.
“Jesus identified with marginalized people. We should give love and compassion to those people,” he said. “We just want to be able to say she doesn’t represent us.”
In addition to their opposition to her stance on the disabilities act, the signatories, who organized through Facebook, take issue with many of DeVos’ other positions, Barry said. He cited the secretary’s consideration to repeal an Obama-era directive that addresses the disparate rates of expulsions and suspensions among students of color, as well as her decision to scale back funding for the Office for Civil Rights.
“It’s wrong for our school to say we’re Catholic and that we support Catholic values, and then take that stamp and put it on someone like Betsy DeVos,” Barry said. “It’s the textbook definition of hypocrisy.”
When reached for comment, Ave Maria President Towey, who served as director of the White House’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, said he was thrilled to have the top education official visit his campus and stood by his invitation.
Towey said he supports DeVos’ actions regarding the disabilities act because it created “regulatory burdens” for school districts. Furthermore, he said, the program has been severely underfunded since it was created 40 years ago.
“That falls on Congress’ lap,” he said.
Towey said he also appreciates DeVos’ decision to roll back the Office for Civil Rights, which he said committed a series of “egregious overreaches.”
Towey pointed to President Barack Obama’s guidance on Title IX, which offered protections for transgender students and lowered the burden of proof required to adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault, as examples of overreach that DeVos has rightly altered or rescinded.
“It was a long overdue correction that’s helped us maintain our faith-based identity,” Towey said. “What DeVos has done has been laudable.”
Furthermore, Towey argued that DeVos has shown a commitment to the poor by advocating for voucher programs and school choice.
“You may disagree with her approach, but I think she sincerely holds these views,” he said.
Towey noted the university has welcomed conservative leaders “in the same mold” as DeVos to speak at commencement in the past, including Gov. Rick Scott and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. To say there’s been a shift in the university’s values is not a fair reading of the school’s history, he said.
In addition to speaking at commencement, Ave Maria planned to confer to DeVos an honorary doctorate. Towey met with the secretary and her staff in Washington, D.C., April 3 to discuss security arrangements and potential ethics violations in relation to the doctorate.
Because DeVos leads the agency that oversees programs in which the university participates, including financial aid, both Ave Maria and the Department of Education agreed the doctorate could present a conflict of interest and decided to forgo the honor.
Towey said he has heard only positive feedback from Ave Maria students.
The event will mark DeVos’ third official visit to Collier County. DeVos read to kindergartners at Lake Park Elementary in November after visiting Florida Southwestern Collegiate High School, a charter school in Fort Myers. In October she toured Everglades City School and Pinecrest Elementary in Immokalee to survey damage from Hurricane Irma.
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Roughly 250 undergraduate graduate students are expected to receive degrees at the May 5 ceremony, which will take place at 10 a.m. in the Tom Golisano Field House.
As alumni of Ave Maria University (AMU), we are disappointed to learn that the administration of the University invited Secretary of Education Mrs. Betsy DeVos to speak at the 2018 Commencement. AMU plans to bestow an honorary doctorate on Mrs. DeVos, who has accepted the invitation. In the press release, AMU President James Towey said, “Secretary DeVos is a passionate advocate for children in America and their right to a quality education, and the common-sense initiatives she has undertaken in her first year overseeing higher education in America merit our gratitude.” We disagree unequivocally with such an endorsement.
First, the endorsement is inconsistent with AMU’s liberal arts foundation. According to its mission, the University is a “Catholic, liberal arts institution.” John Henry Cardinal Newman defined liberal arts education as “the cultivation of the intellect…and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”
The philosopher Jacques Maritain further explained that the liberal arts “equip man to become actually free in...his mind and judgment, as well as in his internal mastery of the pressures of his environment….” Accordingly, a core function of the liberal arts must be to impart a mode of critical thought about the human person and society. A liberal arts institution, especially one of a Catholic character, must be free of political indoctrination to be the proper marketplace of ideas for its members.
While we encourage AMU to invite speakers of diverse political, social, and religious backgrounds who are open to respectful dialogue, a public endorsement of an incumbent Cabinet member and her achievements from the University’s most senior administrator rings as an endorsement of a specific political agenda. We are concerned that this endorsement degrades AMU’s liberal arts character that allows students to “become actually free in…mind and judgment” and casts the University in a pointedly partisan light.
Moreover, the endorsement is inconsistent with Catholic social teaching, which AMU must propagate if it wishes to continue calling itself “Catholic.” We recall Christ’s own words about the Last Judgment: “‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:40, Douay-Rheims). Yet Mrs. DeVos’s policies are callous and unjust towards marginalized persons.
For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures a “free appropriate public education” is available to disabled children. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Mrs. DeVos stated that enforcement of IDEA was best “left to the states,” showing both ignorance of IDEA as federal law and tacit approval of states that disenfranchise disabled children. Indeed, she has supported special education voucher programs that require disabled students to waive their due process rights under IDEA in order to participate. Further, Mrs. DeVos recently rescinded 72 guidance documents regarding the implementation of IDEA, including titles such as, “Procedural Safeguards and Due Process Procedures for Parents and Children with Disabilities.” Mrs. DeVos’s actions are hostile to a culture of life and of advocacy for the marginalized among us.
For these reasons, we call upon AMU’s President and Board of Trustees to revoke the invitation to Mrs. DeVos to speak at the 2018 Commencement and to adopt a policy of political impartiality and inclusivity consistent with the University’s Catholic character and liberal arts curriculum.
Amanda Abella, 2010
Laina Barakat, 2007
Matthew D. Barry, Esq., 2008
Allyson Barry, 2008
Joreen R. Belocura, J.D., 2008
Amanda Blake, 2012
Leslie Boyle, M.Ed, 2012
Amanda Braniff (Guilinger), MLIS, 2007
Melissa (Martin) Dillier, 2011.
Mahluli Dube, 2007
Patrizia Fuchs-Antonik, 2008
Rev. Matthew Grady, 2008
Elizabeth Stauner Hattenberger, 2006
Sarah Hofkes, M.A., 2008
Elijah Jerome Ibarra, 2011
Marija Jerkic, 2008
Eamon Ladewski, M.A., 2007
Jackalina Lariviere (Manzanares), 2008
Deirdre Littleton, M.A., M.A., 2012
Shannon Littleton Lee, M.A., 2008
Gabriela Lubviano, 2008
Noelle MacDonald (Pierotti), 2008
Mary Kelly Menard, 2007
Paul Menchaca, 2006
Rachel Dunleavy Morgan, 2008
Barbara Baran Pace, 2009
Brenda A. Pegler (Moreno), 2008
Miriel Thomas Reneau, M.A., 2009
Erika Rivera, 2007
Andrea Rodriguez, 2008
Thomas Spellman, 2007
Sharon Starcher, 2007
Laura Su (Ascenzo), 2010
Rose Helen Tomassi, 2011
Sara Anderson Ukwuoma, 2009
Michelle Obray Vallery, 2009
Follow Annika Hammerschlag on Twitter: @a_hammerschlag