UF makes huge change in graduation ceremony. Thousands of Gators don’t like it.

Video shows UF students pulled off stage during graduation

Video of students being pulled off stage during a University of Florida graduation ceremony in May 2018 caused an online uproar.
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Video of students being pulled off stage during a University of Florida graduation ceremony in May 2018 caused an online uproar.

Daniel Clayton sat through five graduation ceremonies at the University of Florida, watching friends individually march across the stage and collectively toss their caps into the air.

After five-and-a-half years of working toward his electrical engineering degree, it’s Clayton’s turn in December. He’ll still be able to celebrate with his other graduating Gators, but he recently found out he’ll have to attend a second, separate ceremony to walk the stage and hear his name called to the cheers of family and friends.

“We are not able to share in the rites of passage that every single student has had before,” said Clayton, 23. “We’re being robbed.”

UF announced in August that it is launching a new commencement model for fall graduates, the Independent Florida Alligator first reported Monday. There will be one, two-hour university-wide graduation (except for doctoral students) held in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with guest speakers, the Gator band, choir and graduates of all majors. But graduates will not be individually recognized. Those who wish to have their name called will have to attend a separate ceremony specific to their major at a different time and location.

“We look at it as we’re celebrating your student twice as much,” Stephanie McBride, UF’s director of commencements, said Tuesday.

The change has sparked an uproar among students and alumni, who argue that the changes are reactionary to nationwide publicity that came after a marshal “manhandled” black graduates who strolled across the stage at commencement in May. An online petition asking UF administration to return to the traditional commencement procedures had racked up 8,800 signatures in three days.

“I am suffering for someone else’s mistakes, and I know I’m not the only person who feels this way,” Clayton said.

McBride says the new procedures fall in line with other large universities — the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State University, the University of Maryland and the University of California at Berkeley, to name a few — that graduate students by the thousands. But she called the May graduation incident the catalyst for the changes that were in the making.

“What happened in May was basically that we were being too efficient,” McBride said. “And that efficiency is what caused that incident. But really we were trying to do too much in our ceremonies.”

She said UF was running a “conveyor belt system” that crammed 10 ceremonies graduating 7,000 students into four days while keeping each ceremony to two hours, and that a college-specific ceremony allows for a more personalized and intimate event that allows for relevant speakers, marshals who have a rapport with graduates and some special recognitions.

But the new commencement procedures will actually double a graduate’s commencement time — from one two-hour ceremony to two, two-hour ceremonies — and college-specific ceremonies could be held on days other than the university-wide commencement, which could affect travel logistics for visiting families and friends.

While the university-wide commencement is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, other colleges will graduate later that day or on another day. The Colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Public Health, Pharmacy and Nursing, for example, will hold their ceremonies Friday night. while graduates of the Warrington College of Business will have to wait until Sunday morning for their second ceremony.

“We would hope and encourage that students choose to go to both ceremonies, but absolutely they could choose to go to one or the other,” McBride said. “We know that that could happen.”

Clayton says he expects 30 family and friends from Brooklyn, New York, to attend his graduation but says because of the graduation-day traffic and their unfamiliarity with the campus, he likely will not make them sit through two ceremonies, just the College of Engineering one.

“Is there even really a point for students going to that ceremony?” he said, referring to the university-wide commencement. “Just throw it all away if that’s what you’re gonna do.”

McBride says UF’s commencement task force, created over the summer, will evaluate its fall commencement procedures and make appropriate changes for its larger ceremony in May 2019. She also said protocols for marshals have been updated to forbid any physical contact between marshals and graduates.

“People are still dealing with the reality that they may or may not be in the O Dome,” McBride said, referring to the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the traditional venue for graduation. But she says that graduating all at one time, with 25,000 visitors in the stands is “a pretty remarkable thing.”

“If we can get excited instead of scared of the changes,” she said. “I think we’ll be OK.”

Contact Colleen Wright at 305-376-3003 and @Colleen_Wright