A graduate bears a mortarboard message during New College of Florida's official commencement ceremony on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Sarasota. A student-led alternative commencement was held Thursday in protest of state-mandated changes at the school. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

SARASOTA — Silhouetted by a setting sun over the Gulf of Mexico, New College of Florida graduates walked briskly across the stage Friday evening under the gaze of their parents, professors and a throng of cameras broadcasting the event on news channels across the nation.

In previous years, the school’s commencement was best known for the graduates’ creative costumes. But in recent weeks the event has taken on the weight of a monthslong battle between students and administrators, devolving into what likely will be one of the most politically contentious graduation events in the nation this spring.

The Sarasotaschool has received nonstop national attention since Jan. 6, when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed six trustees with a mission to transform New College from a bastion of non-conformity into a “classical” liberal arts institution molded by the state’s Republican leaders.

That new direction was on full display at Friday’s ceremony, which featured Dr. Scott Atlas, a controversial radiologist who served as a COVID-19 adviser to both DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.

Atlas spoke for 16 minutes, relitigating the public debates that raged over his policy advice, which favored “targeted protection” over broad lockdowns. He also inveighed against the media, federal health officials and university experts who questioned him.

“You guys need to disregard lies of untruthful media and politicians,” Atlas told the graduates.

Dr. Scott Atlas, an advisor to former President Donald Trump during the pandemic, speaks to graduates during the New College of Florida commencement
Dr. Scott Atlas, an advisor to former President Donald Trump during the pandemic, speaks to graduates during the New College of Florida commencement ceremony Friday evening in Sarasota. Looking on is New College Interim President Richard Corcoran. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The crowd interrupted him at several intervals with cries of “Stop making it about you” and “Murderer” as he defended his role in the White House. Students and parents stood and turned their backs to the stage, until chants of “Wrap it up” overwhelmed Atlas, causing him to pause.

“It was shameful all around,” said Elizabeth Mead, the mother of Shayne Mead, who graduated Friday with a degree in theater.

“I agreed with a lot of what he said, but this was not the time or place for political propaganda,” she said. “The parents and children fed off each other until it was chaos.”

Atlas“didn’t respect my time, so I didn’t respect his,” Shayne Mead said.

Both agreed, however, that the speaker who followed Atlas hit the perfect note. Sophia Brown, who graduated with an English degree, touched on the struggles that New College students have endured over the pastfour years.

The class of 2023 “has fought to get education through the onset of a global pandemic, threats of mergers, multiple hurricanes and four presidents in four years,” Brown told the crowd. The events of the last few months, she said, are “far from what I think most of us wanted our undergraduate experience to be like.”

Brown spoke of New College’s “many flaws and contradictions, uniqueness and, yes, resilience.” She said she would remember those qualities the most.

She also recalled campus bonfires, last-minute hair dyes, and “the light and life that people are able to bring to a drab residential campus on a shoestring budget every semester.”

More than 90 of the school’s 128 graduates attended the event, many as an uneasy concession to proud parents.

Nat Kornblum said that the previous night’s student-led alternative commencement at the Sarasota Art Museum felt like her real graduation. But she added that Friday’s formal celebration still felt important to her parents, who did not graduate from college.

“It’s something that I’ve always looked forward to because I’m the first one in my family who gets to have that experience,” Kornblum said. “I just find it upsetting that it’s become so highly political and so perverted by these people who are coming in from outside our community to ‘fix’ us.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.