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New College of Florida 'alternative' ceremony serves as part celebration, part protest

Students organized the alternative graduation ceremony after the Gov. DeSantis-led transformation of the Sarasota school
Posted at 8:45 PM, May 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 20:47:53-04

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — Gathering outside on a warm but pleasant evening near downtown Sarasota, dozens of New College of Florida graduates not only celebrated their academic achievements, but also protested what they view as a “hostile” takeover by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his acolytes of the college they love.

K.C. Casey and Madison Markham organized the gathering, dubbed a “Commencement: On Our Terms,” and according to Markham, 90 of the school's 118 graduates attended.

“I think an event like this shows the state, shows New College, that students are willing to fight for what we believe in,” Casey said.

The graduation ceremony hosted Thursday night was not the college’s official commencement. Instead, it served as an “alternative” for students who feel their liberal arts college in Sarasota is no longer the school they first enrolled in years ago.

New College has been the site of a conservative takeover championed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

Earlier this year, DeSantis replaced six members of the college's board of trustees with conservative allies. That board fired the school’s president and scrapped its diversity office.

Just this week, the governor and the school’s new leaders celebrated the college’s future, which they believe will set more students up for successful careers.

“I would love for this to be, and I think it will be, the top classical liberal arts college in America,” the governor said during a bill signing ceremony at New College.

“We are on the verge of having the largest incoming class ever in the history of New College in just 90 days,” added Richard Cororan, the school’s interim president.

Friday, the college will host its graduation ceremony. Scott Atlas, an advisor to President Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic, will give the commencement address.

"Tomorrow we’re being recognized for our degree, but today we’re being celebrated for our achievements and who we are,” Markham, the organizer of the alternative ceremony, said.

Thursday, as she attended the alternative ceremony with her family, Fran Hamilton said the sudden takeover of New College is a gross infringement, and she said the strife has been demoralizing for her daughter, a graduating senior.

“Every day. Every day. Do we have crying? Do we have sadness? Do we have fear? This is the world I’m going into,” she said. “This is how fascism moves into a country.”

Though some New College seniors are ready to graduate — and are even planning to leave the state — some said they still have an obligation to fight for New College, their beliefs and identities, and for the underclassmen who will graduate in future years.

“New College is a community,” Markham said. “I think there are plenty of alums here tonight, and I think that shows how, you know, they can try to separate us and divide us with their political attacks, but whether you're a faculty member or staff or alum, we all really care about each other.”