Graduating seniors at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their backs in protest of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the start of her commencement speech on Wednesday at the historically black institution.
Whitehead's appeal cites DeVos' assertion earlier this year that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Bethune-Cookman are "real pioneers when it comes to school choice"-a policy many education advocates say damages public school infrastructure at the expense of students of color".
Shortly after the protests began, the administrators and faculty members seated behind her rose from their seats in solidarity with DeVos, who supports charter schools and vouchers for school choice.
"Let's choose to hear one another out", DeVos said, reading her prepared text in a measured tone despite continuing waves of boos, catcalls and only scattered applause.
Order for the most part was restored, although at least one man was escorted out by security.
Jackson, an African-American and a Republican, and some others defended the choice of DeVos as the graduation speaker for the school, which was named for black educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
"We are all about the business of making new friends", Jackson said at a pre-commencement news conference.
On Wednesday, DeVos pressed on with her speech, despite the boos. "If you don't have friends, it's very hard to raise money".
Some alumni and the local NAACP leader called for the BCU President Edison Jackson to rescind the invitation as insensitive and misguided.
Students and alumni had petitioned to block Secretary DeVos from speaking.
Betsy DeVos took the stage as a billionaire, who was totally out of touch with the people that she was addressing. But he said "Bethune-Cookman University can't do it alone".
Some students agreed, saying the school needs help from anyone offering it, no matter their party affiliation.
Perhaps foreseeing the resistance she'd face during her speech, DeVos told the crowd, "While we will undoubtedly disagree at times I hope we can do so respectfully. While we may share differing points of view, my visit and dialogue with students leaves me encouraged and committed to supporting HBCUs".