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New College of Florida graduates hold alternative commencement ceremony in protest against Gov. DeSantis’ conservative takeover of the college

<i>Thomas Bender/USA Today Network via Reuters</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs three bills into legislation
Thomas Bender/USA Today Network via Reuters
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs three bills into legislation

By Nicquel Terry Ellis

(CNN) — Graduates at the New College of Florida held an alternative commencement ceremony Thursday evening in protest of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ conservative takeover of the college earlier this year.

The alternative ceremony was a private event held at an undisclosed location in Sarasota, where the school is based, students said. The small liberal arts college has been known to offer a welcoming environment to LGBTQ students.

New College graduates told CNN they wanted a ceremony where they could have freedom of expression and feel celebrated without the influence of the college’s conservative leadership. Some also rejected the college’s decision to tap Dr. Scott Atlas, a former Covid-19 adviser to President Donald Trump, to deliver the keynote speech at the official graduation set for Friday.

“You’re speaking up to the dozens of states that are now copy-catting the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” guest speaker Maya Wiley, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said at the ceremony.

During her speech, Wiley referenced legislation signed by DeSantis last year that banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. The “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, took effect as conservatives around the country push a host of bills that would further marginalize members of the LGBTQ community, CNN previously reported.

Wiley also referenced a 138-page order in November written by US District Judge Mark Walker, who called the law “positively dystopian.”

“Why are we so inspired? It is because you have had to be strong for the right to have a free education; for the right to be able to develop your own sense of self,” Wiley said.

“You’re not just standing for yourselves. You’re standing for all of us,” she continued.

DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s board of trustees with conservative allies who forced out the college’s former president and appointed DeSantis’ ally, Richard Corcoran, as interim president. The reshaped board voted in February to abolish diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which included eliminating the college’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence.

The governor also signed a bill this week to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs at all state universities, which he called a “distraction from the core mission.”

Alternative ceremony meant to be a safe space

Madison Markham, who helped organize the alternative ceremony with classmate KC Casey, said she was concerned that speakers at the official graduation may make remarks that could be disrespectful or condescending to students and their identities. The alternative ceremony, she said, was meant to make students feel safe.

“I was excited because I know whether or not I go to the real graduation, I get a night where I feel celebrated and respected,” Markham said. “I get to be around the faculty, and other students and family and friends that really make New College what it is and understand and respect the culture.”

Markham said she also objects to having Atlas speak after he pushed controversial narratives about the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Atlas advocated for herd immunity and discouraged testing, masks and lockdowns.

Markham said both of her grandparents died from Covid-19.

“It felt like an insult seeing that that was our commencement speaker because that (her grandparents’ death) really devastated me,” Markham said.

Markham said before the event took place that the majority of graduates confirmed attendance at the alternative ceremony.

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CNN’s Emma Tucker, Devan Cole and Tina Burnside contributed to this report.

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