National News

University of Florida Punishes Faculty Member Who Forced Black Graduates Offstage

Posted May 8, 2018 6:45 p.m. EDT

A University of Florida faculty member who forcibly moved along black students as they danced onstage during a spring commencement ceremony has been placed on paid administrative leave, a university spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

The faculty member, whom the university declined to identify, had served on Saturday as a platform marshal, a role that involves “monitoring the flow of graduates,” a university official said in an email.

Video of the event showed the faculty member approaching individual black students as they danced joyfully in front of a crowd of thousands, then physically moving them offstage.

A number of the graduates were strolling, or performing choreographed dances popular among black fraternities and sororities. They are a common way to celebrate at graduations, and students will often dash off a few quick moves before accepting their diploma.

In one case on Saturday, the marshal put both arms around a student, pulling him away.

“I was shocked,” the student, Oliver Telusma, 21, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He literally wrapped his arms around me. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

Telusma, a political science major and member of the Theta Sigma chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, recalled trying to regain his footing.

“It felt like he was trying to push me — just trying to assert that dominance and control over me,” he said. “I felt it to be extremely excessive.”

The university’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, apologized on Sunday.

“We were inappropriately aggressive in rushing students across the stage,” Fuchs said on Twitter, adding that “the practice has been halted for all future ceremonies.”

“I personally apologize,” he wrote, “and am reaching out to the students involved.”

Telusma said he had received a voicemail message from Fuchs, who told him that 21 students were affected and invited Telusma to get in touch.

So far, Telusma has not called back. He said he needed time to process what had happened.

The university’s director of communications, Margot Winick, said in an email that “trainings relating to the graduations are now under review.”

The discipline to the faculty member, she added, was “pending a review of the appropriate administrative steps.”

That did not sit well with Chris Garcia-Wilde, 22, a graduate who walked onstage shortly before Telusma, a friend.

“We want him fired,” Garcia-Wilde said on Twitter.

Garcia-Wilde said by phone Tuesday that he and his friends had watched as other students of color ahead of them were hustled along in a “much more physical” way than white students.

They had only wanted to celebrate their accomplishments, he said — not only were they receiving their bachelor’s degrees, but Garcia-Wilde had also been accepted to medical school, and Telusma was waiting to hear back from law schools.

Garcia-Wilde, who was also a member of Theta Sigma, said that after seeing how other students were treated, he decided not to dance.

“I told my friends I wasn’t going to stroll or dance or anything because I was afraid the guy was going to touch me,” he said.

“It was really an ugly scene,” he added. “One of the hardest parts for us is it happened in front of everyone, our families. It happened right in front of the administration.”

The crowd reacted to the marshal by booing, Garcia-Wilde said, particularly after the marshal grabbed Nafeesah Attah, whose cap was knocked off her head.

In an appearance on “Good Morning America,” Attah said the marshal’s response was not arbitrary. “It was definitely contingent on your race,” she said. “White students who were dancing were not perceived as a threat.”

This is not the first time that people of color at the University of Florida have felt uncomfortable on campus. Garcia-Wilde recalled several disturbing incidents from last year: A noose left in a classroom, a student’s Black History Month decorations ripped off her door, and a person seen carrying a swastika.

“The university is framing it as a bad-apple situation, but it’s really symptomatic of a larger problem,” he said.

What should have been a happy moment was tarnished, Garcia-Wilde said.

“Usually commencement is free of this kind of explicit racism, but not this year, which is really sad,” he said. “My last memory will be me turning around and watching my friend get wrestled across the stage.”