Florida College Students Rebuke Ron DeSantis By Hosting Their Own Graduation

A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Florida.
A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Florida.

A student makes her way past the sign at New College of Florida, Jan. 20, 2023, in Sarasota, Florida.

Students at New College of Florida ― a small liberal arts school that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has sought to remake in his own image ― say they’ll host their own graduation ceremony on their “own terms” after the college invited Scott Atlas, a former Donald Trump adviser, to give the commencement speech at the official ceremony.

DeSantis has stoked fury among New College students and national voters alike by leveraging a culture war on so-called “wokeness” against schools and corporations across the state. He has focused his campaign on New College of Florida, a public college in Sarasota that he’s been rebuilding as a bastion of conservative leadership.

Many students want nothing to do with the man who’s expected to run against Trump in the next GOP presidential primary, or with his vision for the school.

“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,” the GoFundMe page for the new graduation ceremony reads. “Commencement is supposed to be a celebration of graduating students and the people who have shaped this school to be what it is.”

DeSantis has slowly started to rebrand New College of Florida to fit his conservative values. He replaced six of the college’s 13 trustees with some of his conservative allies, then ousted the school’s president and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a career politician and former Florida state lawmaker. According to The New York Times, DeSantis said New College of Florida has had trouble attracting new students because of its “embrace of diversity and equity programs.” DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After New College of Florida invited Atlas, one of Trump’s advisers during the COVID-19 pandemic, to speak at Friday’s official graduation ceremony, students and alumni started a GoFundMe to raise money so they could host their own ceremony on Thursday. Instead of Atlas, they invited Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, to deliver their commencement speech.

In a video posted on Twitter, Wiley said she is “so excited” to celebrate the graduating class.

“Not only are you earning one of the nation’s most prestigious degrees from an excellent college, you have survived COVID, you made it work through the dark days of the pandemic, and at the same time, you have been pushing back for academic freedom, for the right to learn and to be who you are,” she said.

As of Wednesday, the students have raised more than $100,000, which will go toward the venue, food, security, insurance and transportation from campus, according to the students’ GoFundMe page. The fundraiser received a $15,000 donation from Save New College, a coalition of students and alumni who seek to protect the school from a “hostile political takeover.”

A spokesperson for New College of Florida told HuffPost in a statement that they believe a “majority” of students will attend the official graduation ceremony.

“New College of Florida’s commencement is being held on Friday, May 19, at the Bayfront ― a tradition that many students look forward to when they are accepted at New College,” the statement reads. “We have an exceptional speaker lined up and look forward to celebrating our graduates, alongside their families and friends, at commencement.”