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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appearance at the Harvard Kennedy School Thursday met vocal protest from hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside—and silent disapproval from students indoors, many of them hoisting banners made from bedsheets.
DeVos visited campus to talk with students and invited guests in a forum titled “A conversation on empowering parents” hosted by the Institute of Politics. During the hour-long event, the President Donald Trump appointee gave a brief talk and answered questions from the roughly 100 attendees, most of them Harvard students.
She faced repeated interruptions. With shouts from the hundreds-strong crowd outside—“Education is a right, not just for the rich and white!”—echoing in the brightly lit John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, protesters in the audience periodically stood and silently unveiled large posters.
“WHITE SUPREMACIST,” read one, drawn in red paint on white linen. “OUR STUDENTS ARE NOT 4 SALE,” read another.
DeVos fought to keep the attention of the room. Kennedy School Academic Dean Archon Fung introduced DeVos, calling her a “special guest” and warning the room he would ask Harvard police to “escort from the forum” anyone who prevented DeVos from speaking.
In remarks that lasted for roughly 20 minutes, DeVos argued for “school choice,” a movement she champions that seeks to develop alternatives to public schools. She steered clear of her recent, controversial decision to rescind Obama-era Title IX guidelines that stipulated that schools must use a lower standard of proof when judging whether an accused student is guilty of sexual assault.
“Our children are 100 percent of our future, they deserve 100 percent of our effort,” she said. “The biggest barrier to education is lack of ability to choose.”
Afterwards, audience members queued behind microphones placed around the room to ask question.
Harvard Republican Club President Kent Haeffner ’18 asked about the proper role of the federal government in educational policymaking. Someone else asked what DeVos thought her “greatest accomplishments” were in office to date.
As attendees watched the students unroll posters, scattered audience members began to press and lampoon the secretary.
After one questioner said, “I’m going to assume you have good intentions,” someone in the room quipped, “That’s a stretch,” prompting many to break into cheers, applause, and whistles.
Then—as roughly two dozen police looked on, patrolling the forum in full gear—the questions became more pointed.
One woman, who said she works as an educator, stood and told DeVos the Trump administration has been removing “tools” from the “tool box” of ways teachers can protect students’ safety. She specifically referenced DeVos’s move to rescind the Obama-era Title IX guidelines, as well as the secretary’s June decision to rewrite the rules outlining bathroom access for transgender students.
She asked DeVos for a path forward that ensures students keep “safe in school.”
DeVos replied that the “whole legal history” on the transgender bathroom is “very complicated.”
“Let’s just say that, with respect to any student that feels unsafe or discriminated against in their school, that is the last thing we want,” she said. “[And] campus sexual assault is not an issue that we’re going to be sweeping under the rug—I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, one sexual assault is one too many.”
Outside, surrounded by police with dogs, demonstrators continued to chant. Harvard students and Bostonians took turns addressing the crowd behind a large microphone. At one point, mayoral candidate Tito Jackson stopped by and urged DeVos to “go right back to Washington.”
At 7 p.m. exactly, Fung started wrapping up the discussion.
“I’ve been to a lot of forums,” he said. “At this forum, there has been the most strongly held and widely held set of views that I have experienced… Conversations like we’ve just had are very, very difficult.”
“I think we did a reasonable and good job of allowing this exchange,” Fung added.
DeVos rose from her seat, smiled, and began walking out. As she exited, the protesters—silent throughout the event—pointed at the secretary and unanimously started chanting.
“What does white supremacy look like?” they shouted. “That’s what white supremacy looks like!”
Thursday’s protest marked the second time in two weeks that the Institute of Politics has courted controversy and drawn protest with its invited speakers. On Sept. 15, the Kennedy School rescinded an invitation for Chelsea Manning to serve as a visiting fellow at the Institute after top current and former CIA officials denounced the decision.
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