University president says in apology video: ‘We failed.’
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida marshal who physically rushed graduates at a commencement ceremony Saturday afternoon has been placed on paid administrative leave, a university official said Tuesday.
The actions of the marshal, whom the school is identifying only as a chemistry lecturer, is under review, university spokesman Margot Winick said Tuesday.
The commencement ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday and overall commencement policy, practices and training also are under review, Winick said.
It’s university policy to keep the names of those under review anonymous, she said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, university officials released a video statement from President Kent Fuchs in which he said, “We failed; the University of Florida and I failed” in creating a commencement atmosphere in which all graduates could celebrate their achievement. A written statement that accompanied Fuchs’ video noted that while he had apologized, “images show him sitting nearby as the behavior occurred.”
The ceremony was for students who received bachelor’s degrees from the university’s College of Nursing and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. About 900 graduates crossed the stage.
The marshal shooed about 30 through the commencement line. Sometimes, he waved his hand or placed his hand over students’ backs to guide them along. Other times, he pushed or shoved students.
Three black students who were members of African-American fraternities and sororities began performing on-stage their organizations’ strolls, or a series of choreographed movements traditionally performed at weddings, parties and graduations.
When members of an African-American Greek organization walk across the stage at commencements, they typically perform a shortened version of a stroll, said Chris Garcia-Wilde, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. After the ceremony, members gather to perform their stroll together.
Near the end of the ceremony Saturday, one of Garcia-Wilde’s fraternity brothers began strolling for three seconds before the marshal grabbed his right arm and shoved him down the line toward his dean, who was shaking graduates’ hands.
As the marshal walked back to his position, another of Garcia-Wilde’s fraternity brothers, Oliver Telusma, walked on stage and began strolling. Almost immediately, the marshal grabbed Telusma from the front with both arms, turned him around while he was still moving and pushed him down the stage.
Three minutes later, a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority walked on stage and began strolling, Garcia-Wilde said. The marshal grabbed her shoulder and walked her down the stage. She almost lost her mortarboard in the process.
While the marshal rushed 30 or so graduates across the stage, the two Alpha Phi Alpha members were treated with the most force.
Telusma said he was taken aback by the marshal’s actions and struggled to regain his footing, fearing he would fall. He felt like the marshal was trying to maintain dominance over him, and “I was just trying to get out of it,” Telusma said.
Telusma, who majored in political science, then shook his dean’s hand and returned to his seat.
“I was shocked that nobody stood up to stop the marshal from what he was doing,” he said. He was more offended when he saw pictures of university administrators smiling while he was being shoved, he said.
He received a voicemail from Fuchs that evening, Telusma said. Fuchs said that Telusma was one of 21 students affected and that he wanted to apologize. Fuchs said in the voicemail that he had instructed marshals not to be aggressive with graduates again.
At first, Telusma said, he didn’t know what to make of the voicemail. But after seeing the photos of Fuchs smiling, he said, “I didn’t find his apology to be genuine.”
Garcia-Wilde, who walked across the stage right before his fraternity brothers, said he wasn’t satisfied with the university’s decision to place the marshal on administrative leave. He wants the marshal to be fired and for the university to create a policy stating that marshals should not touch graduates.
“I’m still not satisfied because the university hasn’t named him,” Garcia-Wilde said. “He assaulted students in front of thousands of people.”
In an email to College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty and staff on Sunday, Dean David Richardson called the physical rushings “unacceptable.”
“While it is not the direct responsibility of the college to train and instruct graduation marshals, we want all our graduates to be shown the respect that they deserve by every member of the university involved in the ceremonies,” Richardson wrote.
Telusma received an emailed apology from Richardson, but he said his and Fuchs’ apologies weren’t sufficient.
He wants the university to create a policy that explicitly states what marshals and students can and cannot do during graduation, Telusma said.
A university document states that platform marshals at commencements are responsible for “monitoring the flow of graduates toward and away from the platform” and “providing for the safety of the graduates as they ascend or descend the stairs to the platform.”
The document is almost two pages long. There is no mention of touching graduates.
University of Florida student body president Ian Green sent a memo to students Tuesday, calling the incident “disheartening” and saying he will co-chair the committee that reviews how commencement ceremonies are handled.
The Black Student Union and the University of Florida Association of Black Alumni both issued letters in response to the incident and posted them on Facebook.
The alumni association demanded mandatory training on implicit bias for commencement marshals, an investigation into the marshal involved and why no one on stage stopped him, and apologies to the students involved.
“The Black Student Union wants the community to know we plan to hold our administration accountable to create positive tangible change in response to recent events of this past weekend’s graduation ceremony,” the union’s statement read.
It credited Fuchs for making personal apologies to the students involved but noted “we are unable to ignore such behavior was tolerated on stage as high-ranking University officials observed with no intervention.”
Deborah Strange is a reporter for The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun.