Videos showing an unidentified faculty member manhandling black graduates who were "strolling" — a celebratory dance traditional to black fraternities and sororities — prompted outrage and a heated debate about whether the usher was racially discriminating against them.
"Although students of multiple identities experienced this aggression during a milestone accomplishment for themselves, we urge everyone to acknowledge the added hostile environment created for black students who rightly showed excitement," the university's Black Student Union said in a statement on Monday.
The Black Student Union said the most aggression was shown towards Nafeesah Attah and Oliver Telusma, who were trying to perform moves significant to their black Greek organizations and which possessed "rich cultural significance in African symbolism."
"It’s a situation where time and time again the university has made black bodies feel unsafe," Telusma told the Gainesville Sun.
After the ceremony, University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs apologized in each subsequent ceremony and said that he had personally reached out to the 22 students who were impacted.
The faculty member who served as the usher was put on paid administrative leave pending a review of "appropriate administrative steps," university spokesperson Margot Winick told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. She did not identify him, citing university policy.
In a campus message Tuesday night, the university acknowledged that the marshal's actions "disproportionately affected students of color and are not in line with UF’s stated institutional values."
"The University of Florida and I failed to provide an appropriate event for all of our students so that they could be celebrated and that they could celebrate their graduations," Fuchs said in the message.
He also apologized that he and other administration officials who were seen sitting onstage during the commencement ceremony did not stop students from being rushed across the stage and from being "physically constrained and pulled."
Fuchs announced the formation of a task force that would provide suggestions on how to "re-conceptualize commencement for students." The university said it was in the final stages of searching for its first chief diversity officer who would serve on the task force along with the senior director of multicultural and diversity affairs.
“All of our students, through their hard work and dedication, have earned their moment to be celebrated," Fuchs said. "This incident is an opportunity to reaffirm our institutional commitment to improving campus climate, while recognizing that we have work to do.”