It's a tradition for culturally black sororities and fraternities to "stroll" across the graduation stage and perform their Greek organization's signature dance, but that tradition was interrupted Saturday at the University of Florida by an "aggressive" graduation marshal.
Video footage showed the orange-and-blue clad marshal physically hustling the celebrating students off the graduation stage — at one point bear-hugging a male student and dragging him away. The videos have spread widely on social media, with many critics calling the actions racist.
On Tuesday, the school announced the faculty member serving as a marshal has been placed on paid administrative leave "pending a review of the appropriate administrative steps." He was not identified.
As criticism mounted, UF's President Kent Fuchs apologized on Twitter on Sunday for being "inappropriately aggressive in rushing students across the stage."
"The practice has been halted for all future ceremonies, and we will work to make sure all graduating students know we are proud of their achievements and celebrate with them their graduation," he wrote. Video from the Sunday ceremony shows students strolling unimpeded, as well as Fuchs leading each commencement ceremony since then with an apology.
Witnesses said the marshal appeared to hurry graduates only at the 1 p.m. Saturday ceremony after one student did a back-flip on stage, and he focused on students who stopped or danced.
The strolling itself is a 5- to 10-second version of the organization's full dance, said UF graduate Christopher Wilde-Garcia, and students tailor them to match their time crossing the stage. Members of the culturally black Greek groups usually wait until the end of the ceremony so they can stroll one after another.
Wilde-Garcia, who crossed the stage right before the two students whose dances were interrupted, said he saw the graduation marshal push other people ahead of him, so Wilde-Garcia decided to simply hold up a fist rather than perform his fraternity's stroll.
"I was afraid the man would touch me," the 22-year-old said.
When he crossed the stage and turned around, he said he saw his friends being physically removed from the stage. He made a move to head back and help his friend, but another marshal ushered him away. He said the crowd, which normally cheers when students stroll, loudly booed the marshal.
"To stroll at graduation at a historically white institution where black students weren't allowed for a long, long time is a huge accomplishment," he said. "We deserve that celebration."
One of the students, Oliver Telusma, described the manhandling to The Gainesville Sun.
"He picked me up and turned me around, which I thought was kind of embarrassing and degrading to be handled in that manner,” he told the newspaper. "It was just really uncalled for."
Fuchs has since individually called each affected student and apologized for the incident, but Wilde-Garcia called the apology superficial. He, like others on social media, called the marshal's actions assault. Wilde-Garcia and his friends want to see the man named and fired.
"This little snapshot of what happened at graduation is a little bit of insight into how the university treats minority students, especially black students," he said. "Black students are told how to exist at the University of Florida, even on the graduation stage."