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New College cracks down on protesters

Written by on Saturday, June 1, 2024

WSLR talks to one student whose diploma is withheld. He claims lack of due process.

By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: May 31, 2024

Host: At least five students of New College of Florida’s graduating class of 2024 are finding some additional strings attached to their diplomas. During the graduation ceremony, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of Ameritrade TD and owner of the Chicago Cubs, cut short his commencement speech when “Free Palestine” chants erupted. Now, New College President Richard Corcoran let the students know through an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that he wanted an apology before they could have their degrees. Florence Fahringer talked to one of the five. 

Florence Fahringer: Joshua Epstein graduated from New College two weeks ago. One week ago, he and at least four of his fellow graduates received a letter from the administration. The letter included a long and broad laundry list of possible violations without getting specific. A few days ago, the five found out what discipline the college planned on exacting from them, not from any official college communique, but from an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Full disclosure: Joshua Epstein was a news intern at WSLR in Spring of 2023. 

Joshua Epstein

Joshua Epstein: We’ve not been given any information about what our punishment’s going to be, other than what Corcoran said in the Wall Street Journal. And what he says is that they might withhold our degrees. 

FF: In a New College press release posted shortly after the students received the letters, the administration described the conduct violations as “self-explanatory.” Joshua does not feel the same. 

JE: I mean, they cited an entire statute in the letter. They cited something that ranges from violence to chewing gum too loudly. That’s the statute that they’re punishing us under in the student code of conduct. So we don’t know, I mean, we have no idea what we did. We have no idea what they’re trying to do to us. We have no idea why they’re even doing this, what it is, what conduct we did that rose to the level of a conduct violation.

Because I mean, anyone who watched the commencement ceremony can very clearly see that there was no activity that rose to the level of a conduct violation. They allowed cheering throughout the entire event; there was a lot of cheering. But they’re only punishing the people that booed. So apparently you can cheer, but you can’t boo. And if you boo, they’re taking away your degree.

The event saw elevated police presence, including officers that did not seem to be campus police.

FF: Corcoran and the administration seemed prepared for a New College edition of the pro-Palestinian protests currently erupting across America’s campuses. Commencement ceremony participants needed tickets. There were private security contractors, bag checks, a metal detector, “prohibited items” signs, and an unusual number of armed officers who did not seem to be campus police.  Corcoran described it as  “meticulous preparations to protect students’ right to enjoy a normal commencement.” But all the administration got was two bouts of around a dozen “Free Palestine” chants; Corcoran himself in his op-ed only accuses students of having “intermittently disrupted the proceedings.” Joshua’s voice was not among the  pro-Palestine chants, but he found out that didn’t matter.

The graduating class of 2024. A few heckles came from their seating block, but most of the dozen or so ‘Free Palestine’ chants seemed to come from the back of the tent. Photo: Johannes Werner

JE: And the craziest part about this is at the commencement ceremony, I was wearing my “free the hostages” necklace. I’m a very outspoken advocate for Israel, freeing the hostages. I am their model student when it comes to Israel-Palestine.  I’m closer to their beliefs than I am to the “Free Palestine” chants.  

But that’s not what this administration cared about. The reason why they’re including me in this targeting and the reason why they’re targeting students that didn’t scream “Free Palestine” is because they wanna show that it doesn’t matter what your ideology is outside of the takeover of New College. All that matters is if you speak out against New College and the takeover; you will be punished even if you’re a conservative, even if you support Israel.

FF: In the end, the students were not the biggest obstacle to Rickett’s freedom of speech. Joshua says that he couldn’t even hear the commencement speech due to the failure of the audio system. 

JE: I very much wanted to hear what he had to say. The reason no one heard what he had to say is because the college is incompetent, and they had a microphone system that completely failed and went out. They let the commencement speaker talk to himself for 15 minutes, and if I had to guess, Joe Ricketts was very upset afterwards that no one was able to hear his speech.

Much of Joe Ricketts’ speech could not be heard, due to audio problems. At one point, Corcoran tried to adjust the microphone.

And the college is run by people who don’t know how to say “it was my fault,” so instead they’re trying to scapegoat the students. These morons that run the school let him mumble to himself for 15 minutes, and then have the audacity to say that it’s the students that are the reason he couldn’t speak — No, it’s because you guys don’t know how to put on commencement ceremonies, don’t know how to work a microphone system. That’s not the students fault.

FF: Just the day prior, Joshua attended Alternative Commencement, an event sponsored by New College alums, and organized by members of the graduating class. He describes the difference between the two events and the two commencement speakers as “night-and-day.” 

JE: So I was at the Alt Grad the night before. I mean, that was a fun event. That was an event where the students picked the speaker. I mean, the entire event was put on by students in part; it was run by two students, the entire thing, and they picked the speaker. So it was a night and day difference. And the Alt Graduation that we had the night before was really emblematic of what a graduation is supposed to be. A celebration of the students, by the students, for the students.

The Alt Graduation was … everywhere you looked, smiles. It was people happy to be there. The actual graduation was frowns from the very beginning. It was people that didn’t want to be there. Like when you have to go sit down and watch Richard Corcoran and the people that have pushed out your faculty, pushed out your advisors, pushed out your friends, called your friends horrible names, when those are the people that you have to listen to speak for an hour, that’s not a ceremony that you enjoy, that’s not a ceremony for you, that’s a ceremony for themselves. 

Yeah, I went to the commencement to celebrate myself and celebrate my classmates. Do I regret going to the commencement? I mean, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I 100% regret going to the commencement because it wasn’t a ceremony for the students. I mean, not only were we not able to hear the speaker, not only was it all the people that have tormented us for two years that were talking at the ceremony, but now they’re trying to take away my degree for literally nothing.  So yeah, I would have stayed home and not regretted the result of it. I mean, when they use every opportunity to punish students, students are going to stop coming to events. Students are not going to go to the graduation next year. And they’re going to have to find a graduation speaker that wants to talk to a room of empty chairs.

FF: Regardless of his regret, Joshua is now facing the consequences of attending official commencement. Corcoran let him and his fellow graduates know through his op-ed that “repercussions could range from withholding degrees until students issue apology letters or take mandatory classes on civil discourse to suspension or expulsion.” Though Corcoran says in the same op-ed that he “reaffirmed New College’s unwavering commitment to fairness and due process,” Joshua has recently discovered that he’s being treated as guilty until proven innocent. 

JE: We found out today that the school is withholding my transcripts. I requested my transcript for grad school and for job applications; they’re refusing to turn it over. And in the system, they’re stating that it’s because I have outstanding bills, but I called the registrar today and they said that, no, it’s not because I have outstanding bills, it’s because of this. It’s because of their retribution against us. The registrar says that they were called and told to put a hold on the account.

What they’re doing is so unprecedented, they don’t even have an option in the system for a dean’s hold, for a president’s hold, for being called and told to put a hold on an account. So in the system, they have to put it as a financial hold, because that’s all that’s precedented. The only holds that are placed on accounts are financial. There’s no hold for booing at graduation. 

FF: On Wednesday, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an op-ed signed by six New College professors, expressing concern over their administration’s crackdown on students.  They explained their piece by saying “This matters because our students’ futures are at risk and so are the principles of free speech and due process.”

In the piece, they say they need to correct the record of what happened at the graduation ceremony. They say the commencement speaker was imposed by the administration, “without consideration of the students’ preferences.” The teachers also say that faculty leaders were unanimously opposed to granting Ricketts an honorary degree. All this put Ricketts in a difficult position. While the professor say Ricketts did try to send an encouraging message, he was forced to address a “decidedly skeptical audience,” the professors say in the op-ed.

“Then things really went wrong. The audio-visual system went out and a fan behind the podium made it hard for the speaker to hold down his notes. Few in attendance could hear much of what Ricketts hoped to say; after about 15 minutes, he gave up.”

Campus spokesman Nathan March did not respond to questions before deadline.

This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News.


Also read:

New College commencement erupts in protest

New College Alt Graduation


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