SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) — Many of this year’s graduates from New College of Florida walked in their own commencement ceremony Thursday night in protest of the state’s drastic changes to their school.
The two student organizers, who helped raise more than $130,000 for the graduation celebration, said they are still not sure if they’ll attend Friday’s official commencement.
“Tomorrow we are being recognized for our degree,” student organizer Madison Markham said, “but today we’re being celebrated for our achievements and who we are.”
New College of Florida is a small liberal arts school with a graduating class of 119 students, but it has been in the national spotlight as the state’s leadership takes it in a new direction.
“I think an event like this shows the state, shows New College that its students are willing to fight for what we believe in,” student organizer KC Casey said.
While Dr. Scott Atlas, a White House coronavirus advisor under former President Trump, will serve as the official commencement speaker, civil rights attorney Maya Wiley addressed the graduates Thursday night at the Sarasota Arts Museum.
“We are so honored to have somebody we think embodies what makes New College New College and that’s celebration of diversity, advocating for free expression and civil rights,” Markham said.
Wiley praised the students for speaking out against the state’s sweeping changes to their college since Governor Ron DeSantis installed a new conservative Board of Trustees that ousted the president and dismantled the diversity office.
“You are not just standing for yourself, you are standing for all of us,” Wiley said during her remarks.
This graduation celebration comes the same week the governor was on the New College campus, calling DEI programs “discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination” as he signed three higher education bills into law.
“With our tax dollars,” the governor said, “we want to focus on the classical mission of what a university is supposed to be. We don’t want to be diverted into these niche subjects that are heavily politicized.”
A near lifelong Sarasota resident, Casey plans to leave the state after graduation.
“But I truly care about what happens here,” Casey said, “because I have many friends. I have many professors.”
News Channel 8 reached out to New College for comment on the alternative commencement ceremony.
“New College of Florida’s commencement is being held on Friday, May 19, at the Bayfront – a tradition that many students look forward to when they are accepted at New College,” a statement from New College said. “We have an exceptional speaker lined up and look forward to celebrating our graduates, alongside their families and friends, at commencement. From discussions with several students, a majority plan to attend graduation and are looking forward to it.”