Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Education

After graduates were forced offstage, UF changed commencement. Nearly 10,000 signed a petition to protest.

GAINESVILLE —The controversy started in May.

During commencement at the University of Florida, family members and friends booed as an usher used physical force to rush more than 20 dancing graduates across the stage. It didn’t take long for the videos of the man grabbing and shoving students to go viral.

UF President W. Kent Fuchs issued an apology, and during the summer a commencement task force and members of the administration brainstormed a fix for future graduations.

The solution? Split graduation into two ceremonies.

The changes will be rolled out during the upcoming December and May graduations. One ceremony will be a university-wide celebration on a Saturday for all of the graduates in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, said UF director of commencements Stephanie McBride.

They’ll listen to a band and a guest speaker, and they’ll turn their tassels in unison. They won’t shake the dean’s hand. They won’t have their names called. They won’t walk in front of their families across a stage.

Instead, all of that will happen during an additional "college recognition ceremony" held on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday of graduation weekend. Colleges will host their own events to individually recognize students, and they’ll take place at venues across UF, from the O’Connell Center to the Florida Gymnasium.

The aggressive behavior of the graduation marshal in May was just part of what led to the change, McBride explained. UF hosted 10 ceremonies in just four days in May, often with graduations happening back-to-back. Students may not have been grabbed if there hadn’t been pressure to keep each ceremony within two hours.

"Students were rushed off the stage because we failed in trying to do too much," she said. "We were worried about efficiency, and that efficiency got taken too far."

RELATED: At UF, black students feel a reckoning on race is long overdue

Anthony Rojas, a recent UF graduate, had dreamed of his commencement for 16 years. But as he watched the graduation marshal grab students during his ceremony, he felt horrified.

"There is no need to reinvent the wheel concerning our graduation ceremonies when, in reality, no controversy would have arisen last year if UF administration would have followed the simple rule we are taught in elementary school — to keep our hands to ourselves," said Rojas, who is staying at UF to finish his master’s degree.

Rojas thought the new process seemed time-consuming, expensive for traveling families, and less meaningful — especially without individual recognition at the main ceremony. So, he started a petition titled "UF Administration: Give UF Graduates the Commencement Ceremony They Earned."

He posted the petition to change.org on Sunday night. Before 2 a.m. it had amassed nearly 1,000 signatures. By Thursday morning, it had more than 9,700.

UF’s administration is happy to receive feedback from students and families, McBride said.

"Students absolutely have the right to petition, to have their voices heard," she said. "That being said, we are not changing the structure for this fall."

For UF nursing student Valerie Berman, this isn’t enough.

"It’s unfortunate that they don’t seem willing to work with the students on this," said Berman, who also graduated with her bachelor’s degree in May. "After having already done the ‘big’ graduation ceremony once, I’m personally not planning on doing it again."

Berman said there are other ways to resolve the problems that plagued commencement.

"Maybe by doing more background checking on the ushers before appointing them, or setting a solid on-screen time limit for each student," she said.

Daniel Ospina, a UF student government senator for graduate students, was disappointed at first, too. But after speaking to a member of the task force, he feels better knowing that other universities follow a similar structure.

"If graduates and families are not interested in hearing the presidential and guest speeches, they can simply opt to only attend the individual college ceremony," said Ospina, who completed his undergraduate degree at UF and stayed for his master’s degree.

Since Rojas’ petition took off, he has spoken with McBride as well as student body president Ian Green, who co-chaired the commencement task force. His next meeting will be with President Fuchs sometime next week.

"We the students want to work with administration to rectify this and they continue to communicate that regardless of the petition," Rojas said. "Students deserve answers, an explanation, and transparency."

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