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Pomp, Circumstance and a Little Less Personality

University of Florida is eliminating graduation ceremonies featuring every graduate walking across the stage. Many students are angry and see a link to dispute that set off racial debate at spring ceremony.

September 14, 2018
 

In August, the University of Florida announced changes to its December graduation ceremony, but has yet to formally notify students. Instead of one ceremony in which students have their names called and personally receive a diploma, the celebrations will be split in two: a university-wide ceremony where degrees are conferred without student names, and a smaller college-specific ceremony where students will have their names called and walk across the stage.

"We have three commencement time frames. We have the summer, which is pretty small, only about 1,500 graduates," Stephanie McBride, director of commencements at the university, said. "In May, we have a significantly larger number of students, we have closer to a little over 7,000 students that are going to graduate in that timeframe. The model that we were using previously was just not sustainable."

Last spring, the university had scheduled 10 two-hour graduation ceremonies back-to-back over the course of four days where all students' names were called. During one of the fast-paced ceremonies, several black graduates were physically rushed across the stage by a faculty graduation marshal while they attempted to perform their fraternity's "stroll," a modified version of the organization's dance, while receiving their diploma. For many black fraternities and sororities, the stroll is tradition. Many black students said that white students were never treated that way when they celebrated their achievement.

"That really unfortunate ceremony was a result of the reality that we were trying to do too much at our ceremonies … In May, we did 10 ceremonies in four days, back to back to back to back," McBride said. "Unfortunately, that May incident was a product of worrying too much about efficiency, and then that was misconstrued by a faculty member."

At the time, Kent Fuchs, university president, apologized for what happened and the faculty marshal was placed on administrative leave while university officials conduct a review of the incident. While many large universities follow a two-ceremony format, students say the change is the wrong response to what happened in May.

Anthony Rojas -- a University of Florida masters student who started a petition to reinstate the original graduation format that has garnered nearly 10,000 signatures -- didn't buy McBride's reasoning.

"In reality, it was the UF staff, university administration, and the university president that acted in a manner inconsistent with what this university stands for," Rojas wrote about the May incident. "UF officials were not properly trained on how to treat graduates of all backgrounds with respect, and as a result, they inappropriately handled graduates celebrating their hard-earned accomplishment."

The petition cites a number of additional reasons to keep the old graduation format, such as the added financial and scheduling stress put on families to accommodate two ceremonies, students' right to have their moment walking across the stage at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, where graduation is typically held, and the fact that the university didn't solicit any student input for the change.

"Unfortunately there was never a survey done, student opinions were never asked," Rojas said. "One thing that angers us is them thinking they know what best. When it comes to celebrating students, students should have some input about what they want."

McBride confirmed that no students were involved in or consulted about the change.

Other petition-signers gave their own reasons for protesting the new format. One student signed "because I'm a first [generation] student who wants a real graduation ceremony" and a parent wrote "I'm signing so my son can experience a true Gator graduation ceremony."

Kristen Sandsted, a senior at the university, wrote an op-ed for the university's independent student newspaper to express her concerns.

"I think of the students who are the first in their families to receive a college education. The students who are the first to graduate college fully paid for by scholarships. The students who have fought and are still fighting to be seen and appreciated in this country. The students who have fought and are still fighting terrible battles with mental illness, not knowing if they'd make it up to that stage. The students whose families need nothing more than to see the glowing face of their graduate out in front of them, to ease the painful memories of the family members who could not be there beside them," she wrote. "For those students, it is so much more than a stage."

After the fall graduation ceremony in December, the university will review the new format and decide whether to use it again in the spring.

"The fall, the December ceremony, is sort of the wild card because it's somewhere in the middle, it's much bigger than August and much smaller than May," McBride said, making the ceremony a good test candidate.

She said she understood why students were upset, but thinks that soon two ceremonies will become the "new normal."

"Change is really hard, especially when you have something that you have had in your head, pictured what it's going to be. I think that's true for all of us, for a lot of things," she said. "In a year from now, two years from now, do I think that what we're doing will be the new normal? It will be the new normal."

Graduation dates on the website have been updated to include the second ceremonies, and the university published a press release in August about the changes. Students will be formally notified via email next week.

"I think once we get past this sort of fear of the change and the unknown and the newness, these students will be part of a new tradition at UF, and that's really exciting," McBride said.

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