Published: 17:57, June 13, 2024
Gaza conflict fans US student protests
By Li Mingmei in New York

Commencement ceremonies in the country’s campuses marred by cancellations, walkouts and police arrests

A student displays the Palestinian flag on his mortar board as graduates take their seats in Harvard Yard during commencement at Harvard University, May 23, 2024, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (PHOTO / AP)

This year’s commencement ceremonies at many universities across the United States were marred by walkouts, pro-Palestinian students being threatened with expulsion and suspension of their degrees, and cancellation of a number of celebrations due to administrations’ “safety concerns”.

However, despite the majority of the ceremonies to confer degrees or diplomas now being completed, tensions are still simmering between school officials and students over the rights and wrongs of campus protests.

Donned in kaffiyeh scarves and waving Palestinian flags, some students used their commencement ceremonies as protest platforms and urged their schools to take stronger action to end the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Many students and pro-Palestinian protesters also arranged walkouts to oppose school presidents who had not yet agreed to discuss plans for disclosure of interests and divestment from Israel and Israeli companies.

However, celebrations to mark the completion of academic degrees went ahead peacefully at other US universities. This year’s cohort, including both undergraduate and graduate students, is the same generation that had missed their high school and undergraduate graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1,000 students walked out of Harvard University’s commencement ceremony on the morning of May 23 attended by over 9,000 graduates and their families. Thirteen students who had participated in a protest encampment were not allowed to take part in the ceremony after a vote the previous day by Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body.

Even though the pro-Palestinian protest at Harvard’s campus was voluntarily dismantled under an agreement reached by students and the school — seen as a peaceful resolution compared to other schools where police made arrests — tensions remained high.

“As our ceremony proceeds, some among us may choose to take the liberty of expressing themselves to draw attention to events unfolding in the wider world,” Harvard’s interim president Alan Garber said at the commencement ceremony.

“It is their right to do so,” he stated, as he asked the crowd to observe a minute’s silence.

Pro-Palestinian students march over the Massachusetts Avenue bridge after walking out during the OneMIT Commencement Ceremony at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 30, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

However, Garber was loudly booed by students and some faculty members during his speech.

“This semester, our freedom of speech and expressions of solidarity became punishable, leaving our graduation uncertain,” Shruthi Kumar, the undergraduate student speaker, said to cheers and applause, while acknowledging the students who had been barred from the ceremony.

Over 1,500 students had petitioned to allow the banned students to participate, and nearly 500 staff and faculty members had spoken on their behalf.

“These are my peers and friends, and I can’t in good conscience celebrate when their families are in pain,” Kumar said.

On the same day, intense protests also took place at the University of California, Los Angeles. Pro-Palestinian protesters rebuilt an encampment on the college grounds, occupied a hall, erected wooden barriers, and effectively blocked access to a small section of the campus.

Around noon, tensions escalated as police and other law enforcement officers arrived at the campus to dismantle the encampment. Clashes between the protesters and the authorities quickly ensued, resulting in several altercations.

Another school in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, was one of the first universities to announce the cancellation of its main graduation ceremony. The event was scheduled for May 10 and more than 65,000 students and guests were expected to attend.

The cancellation followed campus protests over the Israel-Palestine conflict, during which five students were arrested.

Columbia University in New York City, the epicenter of the pro-Palestinian protests, canceled its main university-wide commencement ceremony set for May 15, and instead held smaller ones for each of its 19 colleges.

Columbia’s main campus had been locked down since April 30, after student protesters occupied Hamilton Hall.

Police clash with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at the Shrine Auditorium, where a commencement ceremony for graduates from Pomona College was being held on May 12, 2024, in Los Angeles. (PHOTO / AP)

Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, called in police to remove the student protesters, with 46 pro-Palestine protesters inside the hall and more than 100 people gathered outside the campus.

However, despite two rounds of police intervention, the main commencement ceremony had to be canceled.

In a statement issued by the university on May 1, Shafik said the “drastic escalation of many months of protest activity pushed the university to the brink, creating a disruptive environment for everyone and raising safety risks to an intolerable level”.

Darializa Avila Chevalier, an alumna of Columbia University who supports the protesters, said the students had their priorities straight. “They have been witnessing a genocide for the last seven months,” she told China Daily.

Chevalier said she had friends who were at the encampment who were due to graduate this year. “But a graduation (ceremony) is such a small price to pay,” she said.

At other schools, students came up with other ways during commencement ceremonies to condemn what they considered the inaction of university officials.

New York University held its all-school commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium on May 15 as scheduled. However, students walked out of the ceremony when NYU president Linda Mills gave her address.

While Mills urged being open to people with “whom you might not usually agree”, she did not directly address the ongoing tension between the school and students, despite having authorized the arrests of scores of protesters at an encampment setup at Gould Plaza and 14 student protesters outside another encampment at the Paulson Center.

“What would it look like to stretch and to bridge, to learn from those you might otherwise judge, even reject? Today, as we face a world of war and polarization, this is as important as ever,” Mills said, adding there is “enduring desire to be open to those most unlike us”.

Outside the stadium, students lined up in the rain to enter the stadium, with only two gates open and increased security measures in place.

“I got there around 9.30… it was about 12 o’clock when we ultimately got in,” an international relations graduate at NYU, who identified himself as Sammer, told China Daily. He said that despite the “logistics” issue, everything else was great, and he had a good time celebrating with his family.

Many students view commencements as formal events where they can hear school board members and officials not only address current situations in the community, but also the next steps the school will take.

A student stands in support of Palestine during Washington University's graduation ceremony on May 13, 2024, on Francis Olympic Field in St. Louis, Missouri. (PHOTO / AP)

Despite student protesters’ demands for disclosure and divestment, no university in the US has yet reached an agreement with a student body to end the billions of dollars that college endowments are claimed to have invested in companies that support Israel. School presidents have stated that they have no authority over investment decisions, as they are handled by trustees or investment boards.

Some institutions have reached partial agreements with protesters in recent weeks in relation to issues such as calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, providing financial aid to Palestinian students, and expanding the Palestinian studies curriculum.

Christina Paxson, president of Brown University in Rhode Island, reached an agreement with student representatives to clear a campus encampment on April 30.

The agreement stipulated that students would “refrain from further actions that would violate Brown’s conduct code through the end of the academic year, which includes commencement and reunion weekend”.

“The devastation and loss of life in the Middle East has prompted many to call for meaningful change, while also raising real issues about how best to accomplish this,” Paxson said in a letter issued to the campus community.

“I cannot condone the encampment, which was in violation of university policies. Also, I have been concerned about the escalation in inflammatory rhetoric that we have seen recently and the increase in tensions at campuses across the country.”

The university agreed to invite five students to meet with five members of the Corporation of Brown University last month to present their arguments for divesting Brown’s endowment from “companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory”.

Paxson also said she would request that the Advisory Committee on University Resources Management provide a recommendation on divestment by Sept 30, which will then be taken to the corporation for a vote at its meeting in October.

The New School, a private research university in New York City, has also reached an agreement with students to hold a vote on divestment from Israel.

The university concluded its schoolwide commencement on May 17.

The New York Police Department confirmed it arrested 43 students from the university on May 3.