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New College commencement erupts in protest

Written by on Wednesday, May 22, 2024

But the keynote speaker’s biggest challenge to be heard was the microphone.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: May 22, 2024

Host: On Friday evening, it was official commencement time for New College students. There was a billionaire keynote speaker. There were lines to get in, a metal detector, and security contractors checking people’s bags. There were signs with a long list of “Prohibited Items”. There was unusual police presence, officers carrying guns, and bulky guys with earbuds who did not look like campus police. Even so, there were protests. But the hostile crowd was not the speaker’s biggest challenge. Our news team was at the event on the lawn behind the pink Charles Ringling mansion overseeing Sarasota Bay.

Trombones not included.

Johannes Werner: This was his second visit to Sarasota this year: Joe Ricketts, the Chicago Cubs owner, financial entrepreneur of TD Ameritrade fame, and creator of a foundation that promotes a traditional approach to education – first came to Sarasota in January. He had been here to witness the launch of New College’s online program, using a “Great Books” course the Ricketts Foundation produced.

Ricketts got both moderate applause and boos when he walked to the microphone, in full academic regalia. During his speech, there were heckles here and there, and four in the seating block of graduating students turned their back to the speaker. A police officer walked up to the back-turners and talked to them.  They turned around. Somebody seemed to briefly blow into a trombone at one point, which was not on the “prohibited” list. There were also a dozen “Free Palestine” chants in the back of the tent. But most of that noise could barely be heard from the front row.

At one point, a police officer apparently told students to stop turning their backs to the speaker.

Ricketts’ biggest problem during most of his talk, it seems, was not a hostile crowd. Ricketts’ main enemy was the microphone. It started with feedback noise, which prompted college President Richard Corcoran to get up and rejigger the mic. From then on, much of his speech could not be heard by the crowd – unless they followed the livestream on their phone, or they understood the sign language interpreter. Ricketts spoke too far from the microphone, and the breeze from Sarasota Bay and the oversize, airplane-noise producing fans right underneath the four loudspeakers didn’t help. A few minutes into the speech, a man in the audience stood up and yelled, “Can’t hear you!” That prompted Corcoran to get up and hand the microphone to Ricketts, who refused, saying “I got to use both hands to hold the paper down”. A few minutes later, someone brought a hand-held microphone, which Ricketts again rejected. Finally, someone brought a third microphone on a stand, but even that did not help much.

So, in case you didn’t hear what Ricketts said, which is likely if you were there: He told the graduates that each of them is unique. He talked about the importance of happiness. How he rose from a humble upbringing in Nebraska, working and saving to pay for college. How he learned to change plans. How difficult circumstances prompted him to invent the discount brokerage. How important it was for him to have a supportive wife, how she never complained and was happy to just have a family. And the importance of freedom to make choices. Apparently, some in the back of the tent heard the word “freedom”, and they chanted “Free Palestine” a dozen times, which cut short Ricketts’ speech.

Joe Ricketts: The other thing that’s important is freedom. You need to be free to make the choices. And today you have a lot of opportunity to make additional choices, because of all the different kinds of careers that are out there today. [‘Free Palestine’ chants, heckles] Okay they calmed down. Folks, I want to say the next thing is freedom. Freedom is important in the United States, to have all the choices that you have for careers that you want. [heckles]

JW: In case you didn’t understand the dialogue between Ricketts and Corcoran. “Do you want me to stay, or do you want me to go out,” Ricketts asked Corcoran. Corcoran asked back, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t think there’s a way to talk over that”, Ricketts answered. When the chanting died down, he tried to resume his speech. When people kept interrupting him, he said, “I hate it, but they don’t care. They really don’t care what I have to say.” “I’m sorry,” Corcoran said.

So Corcoran took over. Ricketts wanted to walk off the stage, but Corcoran said, “Hold on, Joe,” and proceeded to grant him an honorary doctoral degree.

The honor for Ricketts was not well received by the crowd.

Richard Corcoran: Today, we’d like to honor you with an honorary degree from New College. And so by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of New College of Florida, it is my privilege to confer upon you the degree of a Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, with all its customary rights and privileges. [Applause, boos]

JW: But the crowd certainly did like Grace Keenan, the student who represented her peers during conflict-laden board of trustees meetings, usually ending up on the losing side of the vote.

RC: Next, we will have our student president reflection. Grace Keenan was the student body president for the past 2023-24. [cheers]

JW: Keenan talked about the challenges students faced during the pandemic, about her own illness, about how New College transformed her, how her generation has been pushed to the limits, and how that has changed their worldviews. How the best professors are those who generate students who do not talk like them, but rather talk back to them.

Grace Keenan: The best professors are the ones in which you can never tell who their students were. They have come to their own conclusions, they think on their own, and they argue with the professors. The only hint of their teacher is in the quality of the work they produce, not the content. That is New College!

JW: She ended her talk bringing up her thesis on the downfall of the Roman Republic.

She directly addressed Corcoran, joking about how some are challenged by operating a wireless printer. But it seemed she directed her last words to him as well.

And finally, they walked. One, wearing an astronaut helmet …

GK: As I tried to work with the members of our board, I was guided by Cicero’s work, which preached that we have a duty to our fellow humans, even to the people you do not like, that I personally have a duty to live up to my virtues, to play my part, and behaving justly and ethically.

JW: According to New College professors, the administration told them it is seeking to discipline students who disrupted Ricketts’ speech. We asked New College spokesman Nathan March and New College Student Alliance President Olivia Mikkelsen. We did not get any response by deadline.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


The evening before the official graduation, New College students and alums held an “Alt Graduation”. Read our report here.


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