As the spring semester comes to a close, a substantial portion of the current New College administration is made up of new hires, who have only been part of the community for a handful of months. With this many new faces around Cook Hall comes many new ideas on what student life and campus culture should look like. While not all of these ideas have been negatively received, others have signaled to students an attempt to rebrand New College as a more traditional institution. One example is how graduating students are being “encouraged” to wear caps and gowns for this year’s Commencement ceremony, an event normally defined by how students are invited to dress in whatever outfit they chose, often with outlandish and creative results. And this is one tradition that students are fighting to keep, with the first ever student-run [NEW] Commencement: On Our Terms ceremony.
[NEW] Commencement is an additional commencement ceremony taking place on May 18, one day before official Commencement. According to thesis student and [NEW] Commencement organizer KC Casey, the goal of this alternative commencement ceremony is to allow graduating students to feel “more accepted in a time…when students feel alienated and often attacked by our current administration.”
The announcement of this alternative commencement came to the student email forum on May 1, five days after the Apr. 26 Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting where a student was forcefully removed for swearing during public comment, and two days after Trustee Christopher Rufo tweeted about how the board’s actions since January and the recent removal of gender-neutral bathroom signs on campus are “awesome” and a “right-wing takeover of a progressive school.”
Additionally, May 1 is also the day that Associate Dean of Academic Engagement Helene Gold was abruptly fired with “reorganization” being the only explanation provided. Gold was an openly LGBTQ+ staff member who is well-loved by the student population. With these recent developments in mind, Casey wrote to students that [NEW] Commencement aims to be a “celebration of joy and love and growth that graduation is meant to be, and is needed now more than ever.”
“The new administration that has spent the past four months attacking our students and community cannot, in good faith, celebrate our graduating students and their accomplishments,” Casey wrote. “We’re proud of who we are and our school; so, we’re taking it into our own hands.”
Casey is one of several graduating students organizing [NEW] Commencement with the help of the Novo Collegian Alliance (NCA), a nonprofit and alumni support network. [NEW] Commencement has also received a donation of $15,000 from the educational freedom coalition Save New College, which has donated money to various student needs throughout the semester. Save New College alum organizer Brian Cody (‘06) has also continued to work with student organizers of [NEW] Commencement by establishing a gofundme for the ceremony, with a goal of $35,000.
Casey added that while the team behind [NEW] Commencement is still in the process of securing a venue, some options include the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, The Ringling Museum, or the Sarasota Art Museum. Depending on the venue, there will be space for 250 to 600 people, including graduating students and their guests, faculty and staff. If capacity allows, non-graduating students, alums and community members will also be able to attend.
While many of the details of [NEW] Commencement are still a work in progress and have yet to be announced to the broader community—such as activities, speakers and which components of a traditional graduation ceremony will be retained—the organizers are accepting ideas and suggestions from the graduating class. Casey emphasized that the uniting factor of all events that take place at [NEW] Commencement is that they will be determined by the graduating class and “true to our experiences through the past four years.”
“That means taking things that New College students enjoy and trying to find a way to incorporate them in a celebration of their successes, and a celebration of the community that has helped them get to this point,” they continued. “We’re going to have live music, we’re going to have speakers that reflect our community values. We want to have different activities for bonding and goodbyes.”
Casey also spoke with the Catalyst about the performative and symbolic significance of a graduation ceremony—and how the version of commencement being hosted by administration is one of “maintaining normalcy” and “instilling conformity” despite the rift that has formed between themselves and the rest of the New College community.
Casey also claimed that New College’s administration has attempted to placate the student body by launching small initiatives such as establishing a Sorrento Sweets location in the Four Winds Cafe.
“But even then, they do things like try to enforce caps and gowns,” Casey continued, emphasizing the administration’s perceived attempts at maintaining normalcy while also exacting change in other areas. “They try to chip away at small things that are very important to New College students, and I think that that shows a lack of respect for what our graduating students have worked towards, and the incredible amount of hard work they’ve had to do to get to this point.
“I don’t believe that they can act in good faith after having spent the past four months attacking our community, attacking our students, attacking their studies,” they elaborated. “I think everyone can see through this attempt at putting on a commencement just because it is the normal thing to do. But, I refuse to accept that because they’re not doing it for the right reasons, from my perspective.”
Casey also spoke on how their intentions for [NEW] Commencement are not for it to be treated as a protest or a political act, but an event that can be focused solely on graduating students. They also argue that, “due to the political nature of this new administration,” various student events now take on a political connotation to those outside New College. The seeming politicization of New College is something that Interim President Richard Corcoran has commented on before.
“We have the rhetoric on all sides,” Corcoran said during a meeting with faculty on Apr. 19. “If you’re an incoming freshman, you’re thinking, ‘I wanna come to New College because…it’s always been this liberal place, but now it’s getting taken over by the right, so I’m not going to go.’ And then you have conservative folks who think, ‘I’m going to go because it’s been taken over by DeSantis, but I’m going to wait a year or two because it’s not really there.’”
Corcoran has firmly stated that he does not believe that New College has become an institution defined by political motivations due to recent administrative changes, but Casey disagrees.
“Simply our existence is political,” Casey said. “Trans students’ existence is political, BIPOC students’ existence on campus is political. That is not okay. But, it’s the reality of our situation now. Every move we make is looked at.
“I want this event to be a way for us to focus on students, and if that is too political for people, I would point back to what started this,” they concluded. “I would say that we can respond in the ways that can and try to maintain and cherish what is important for our New College students, for our graduating students, and other people can come to their conclusions on whether that is political or not.”