Betsy DeVos at Georgia Tech today: Mix of pleasantries and protests

Watching about 44 classmates swarm a car transporting the secretary of education from Georgia Tech this afternoon, a Tech student asked me about the commotion, which included a woman blocking the car until police dragged her away.

When I replied the U.S. secretary of education was in the car, the student said, “Wow, Betsy DeVos was here.”

Two interesting points about that remark. The student knew who the education secretary was, an indication of the notoriety that DeVos has brought to a historically low-key Cabinet position. And the student was unaware DeVos had been visiting Tech, a fact that student protesters said was not widely advertised, possibly to keep them at bay.

But they showed up. "We only found about this two hours ago," said Tech student and activist Matthew Wolfsen. "And we still managed to get this many people," he said, gesturing to the boisterous group chanting "DeVos go home" and "DeVos resign."

The protest outside the Wardlaw Center was the only dissonant note in an otherwise orchestrated celebration of Georgia Tech for the secretary. DeVos heard multiple brief presentations about Tech’s accomplishments and programs, including its incubator for student inventions and its surging online graduate programs in computer science.

DeVos was a polite and grateful guest, asking relevant questions and praising Tech for “taking risks and marching into unknown territory on behalf of students. That is just critical to the future of our country in general. You are really leading the way.”

In a brief session with news reporters at the end of her three-hour visit to Tech, DeVos demurred on questions on sexual assaults on campus, Donald Trump's mocking Tuesday of Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford, his statement that these are "scary times for young men in America," and the news today her agency was investigating an allegation by a Decatur mother that her kindergartener was assaulted in a bathroom a year ago by a transgender classmate. (The City of Decatur Schools maintains the allegation is unfounded.)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

DeVos would not respond to whether she found Dr. Ford credible or whether young men were facing perilous times as President Trump alleged, saying only, “I am the mother of daughters and sons. What we need to have is a framework for students that is fair and just for all parties. Students should be able to count on a process that considers those who have been victims and those who have been accused.”

Here are some of the interesting comments in what was essentially a briefing for the secretary on Georgia Tech:

-Professors involved with the 2014 launch of Tech's online graduate degree in computer science talked about overcoming initial reservations that virtual schooling was not the equal of brick and mortar classes on the Tech campus. The inaugural online computer science master's degree program began with 250 students, and now has 8,000. Dr. Raheem Beyah, who is leading Tech's new online master's in cyber security, said one colleague gave the same exam to his 600 online students as he did those attending classes at Tech and the average was within 1 percentage point. Such results are winning over skeptics, he said.

-Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson talked about Tech's outreach to k-12 students and teachers, saying if kids don't get into advanced math in middle school, they're unlikely to get into engineering in college. DeVos concurred, saying, 'Middle school is critical in either quashing any interest in that pursuit or igniting it."

-Tech biomedical engineering student Sarah Bush joined other student inventors telling DeVos about products they developed through the school's Create-X, an initiative to hone entrepreneurial skills and help students turn ideas into reality. Bush is the developer of TINA, a tampon insertion for women with limited hand mobility. Bush credited Create-X for enabling her to progress from an idea to a product, saying, 'Engineering gave me skills, the community gave me empowerment."

Student protesters issued a statement about DeVos being on the campus:

Today, at around 10:30 a.m., the Young Democratic Socialists of America at Georgia Tech was made aware Secretary Betsy DeVos was planning to meet with Georgia Tech school administrators at 1 p.m. The meeting was not well-publicized, and there were minimal students allowed to attend. As such, YDSA activated our rapid-response system at around 11 a.m. to notify the student body.

With a mere two-hours notice, dozens of students showed up to protest Secretary DeVos' pro-rapist and anti-worker agenda in higher education.

The secretary has protected rapists at the expense of survivors of sexual assault. She has enriched her personal friends and family at the expense of students and taxpaying citizens. She has endorsed unnecessary warfare from which her family personally benefits. She has worked to defund public schools instead of realizing the needs of students, such as eliminating the trillion-dollar student loan debt. And, today, instead of an open meeting with the student body, she decided to meet behind closed doors almost exclusively with administrators like President Bud Peterson, who oversaw financial corruption among his staff. Clearly, those attending this meeting did not have an interest in addressing the needs of the student body.

Betsy DeVos has devoted her life to serving America's ruling class. Her presence in the Trump administration exemplifies the utter contempt the state holds for students. Through her repeated actions, it is clear that Secretary DeVos recognizes neither the voice nor the needs of students.

Students are right to be angry at her and all who work with her. It is our right to be upset. We exercised that right today, and we will continue to do so until the needs of the student body at Georgia Tech are addressed. YDSA will never step down in our calls to enact College for All, to forgive student debt, and to guarantee an education to all who desire one. It is inspiring to see so many students come out to demand a world for the many, not the few. YDSA GT stands in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault, with our fellow students in publics schools and universities across the country, and with the working-class majority.

Together, we will win.