DeVos speaking invite to MSU center sparks backlash

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Some faculty and students at Michigan State University want President Lou Anna Simon to rescind an invitation for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to speak at the grand opening of the university’s Grand Rapids Research Center later this month, arguing that the Trump cabinet member is an enemy of public education.

DeVos is scheduled to speak Sept. 20 at the Grand Rapids Research Center — built to continue research of the College of Human Medicine, which expanded in 2010 to the Secchia Center, a privately-funded facility in downtown Grand Rapids. It was constructed for medical education, but not designed for research laboratories.

The Grand Rapids Research Center, to be housed in the former Grand Rapids Press building, is a six-story, 162,800-square-foot facility that will support laboratories, including 44 researchers working to find answers in areas afflicting human health including autism, inflammation, transplantation, cancer, genetics, pediatric neurology, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease

The $88.1 million facility was constructed with gifts, including $10 million from Richard and Helen DeVos – Betsy DeVos’ family members.

But the education secretary has drawn fire from teacher unions and other public education supporters for advocating the use of tax dollars to fund private schools through vouchers or other means.

Since becoming secretary of education in February, DeVos has continued to push for charter schools and a publicly financed choice of private schools that she began in Michigan, where she backed a controversial school voucher ballot proposal that voters rejected in 2000.

Opponents also have cited DeVos’ support for cuts to teacher training proposed in President Donald Trump’s budget; the spending plan would slash $2.25 billion from a program that provides federal grants to states to train and recruit teachers.

During a visit last month to Grand Rapids Community College, DeVos told reporters, “Actually, President Trump and I are very big proponents of continuing to support teachers and develop teachers.”

A petition published on urging MSU officials to rescind their invitation for DeVos to speak at the center’s opening had collected more than 1,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

“DeVos’ agenda is diametrically opposed to the education and inclusion mission of Michigan State University,” said the petition. “While her father-in-law’s gift in support of the GRRC is welcomed and appreciated, giving Secretary DeVos an MSU-sponsored platform to speak sends a message to the public, alumni, faculty, staff, students and their families that the compromising of MSU’s stands can easily be purchased.”

Caryl Sortwell, an MSU translational science and molecular medicine professor based in Grand Rapids, started the petition against DeVos’ invitation.

“People are horrified,” said Sortwell, a Parkinson’s disease researcher. “It’s like inviting an iceberg to speak at the launching of the Titanic.”

The petition lobbies Norman Beauchamp, dean of the MSU College of Human Medicine, to rescind the DeVos invite.

“Obviously, if someone wants to disagree with a choice of speaker for a campus event, they have that right,” MSU spokesman Jason Cody said Friday. “We have invited Betsy DeVos to speak and are moving forward.”

Even so, many who have signed the petition are not happy with MSU’s choice.

“DeVos is actively working to dismantle public education,” Rhyomi Sellnow, an MSU doctoral candidate from Grand Rapids, wrote on the petition. “MSU cannot in good faith support this agenda by inviting her to attend the building opening. The foundations of the scientific research that I and my colleagues will conduct in that building are inherently different than the ideals DeVos pursues.”

Added Megan Duffy of Grand Rapids: “Someone that is detrimental to education and science has no business speaking at an event to open a new research center which fosters diversity, higher education and scientific research.”

DeVos could not be reached for comment.