New College of Florida graduating student Grace Sherman spreads her wings while being announced during a procession of students during the college’s “alternative commencement” Thursday in Sarasota. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Hundreds of students, family members and friends gathered at a Sarasota art gallery Thursday evening for an “alternative commencement” that gave New College of Florida graduates a chance to both celebrate their milestone and defy the state officials who are altering the character of their school.

The event was a prelude to Friday’s official — and more conventional — graduation on campus, where a new group of leaders put in place by Gov. Ron DeSantis is working to turn the liberal arts school into one with a more “classical” bent.

At the art gallery, some New College graduates showed up in colorful attire, a nod to a decadeslong tradition of nontraditional graduations. It’s a legacy that most students hold dear, said student K.C. Casey, who helped organize the event and served as its emcee.

Students with New College of Florida attend the college’s “alternative commencement” Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Casey wore gold spandex shorts and a mesh shirt left over from this year’s campus production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Also spotted in the crowd: a cartoon character costume, a pope hat, a rainbow flag skirt. A student donning a mermaid tail had to be carried during the procession. Guests took their seats to the rhythm of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

The event wasn’t as colorful as in past years, as fewer than a dozen of the 100 or so graduates came in costume. But graduate Gaz Miller, wearing a blue mortarboard over their blue hair, said they were grateful for a ceremony they could support.

“In January I really couldn’t wait to get out of here,” Miller said, referring to DeSantis’ appointment of six new trustees. “But as more things kept happening, I started to really appreciate this place and what it stands for. … I’m just here to get my name called, walk across the stage and, like, stand up for human rights.”

The nonconformist vibe is emblematic of a school that gleefully breaks higher education norms. It’s also part of the school’s independent spirit, said Katherine Walstrom, a biochemist who has taught at New College for 25 years.

“We want to give students as much autonomy as possible,” Walstrom said. “That extends to what they wear at graduation.”

Recently, when the school sent an email to students encouraging cap-and-gown attire, many students took it as one more insult in their monthslong battle with the school’s new administration.

After DeSantis installed the new trustees, they quickly fired the school’s president and appointed DeSantis ally Richard Corcoran on an interim basis. The board and Corcoran have since abolished the school’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion, announced a new sports program and denied tenure to five promising faculty members.

Two LGBTQ+ staff members were among the first to be terminated under the new administration.

Through the spring, as the school’s new direction became increasingly clear, the focus turned to one of the year’s biggest events — commencement — where graduates are typically greeted on stage by administrators.

“Why would you want to shake the hands of the people responsible for this?” asked Casey, who is graduating with a degree in theater, dance and performance.

Holding an alternative ceremony allowed students to celebrate their accomplishments without feeling complicit with administrators who don’t respect them, Casey said.

The changes have come on top of other setbacks that have weighed heavily on this class, which has lived through three of the most tumultuous years in New College history.

The school’s existence was threatened in February 2020, when legislators proposed folding the school into Florida State University. The pandemic arrived a few weeks later.

New College of Florida graduating senior Gaz Miller wears the colors of the Netherlands, to represent their partner, during an “alternative commencement” Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Graduating senior Sofia Lombardi spoke first Thursday evening, telling the crowd: “I don’t want to spend too much time talking on New College’s recent events. We’ve survived hurricanes, a takeover bill and now a fascist takeover.”

Staging an independent commencement is an unavoidably political act of defiance, but only because the school has been politicized, Casey, the emcee, said in an interview.

As the state takeover drew national attention, New College became a battleground in Florida’s culture wars — and an exemplar for DeSantis’ larger goals as he worked with lawmakers to retool higher education across the state.

But it feels personal to Casey, who came to New College identifying as male and now uses they/them pronouns.

“New College helped me discover that about myself,” Casey said. “That might be viewed as indoctrination, but it’s not. If existing is a political act, then everything you do is political.”

Times Staff Writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report. 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.