US Universities Concerned about Protests During Graduation Ceremonies

27 April 2024

New York City police recently arrested students at Columbia University who were protesting the war between Israel and Hamas.

The University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles canceled a graduation speech by the school's valedictorian, who is Muslim.

And demonstrators set up camps on the grounds of the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale University in Connecticut. Harvard University near Boston closed Harvard Yard to outsiders.

Students and other protesters are in a tent camp on the campus of Columbia University in New York on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Students are demanding that colleges end investments supporting Israel's war in Gaza. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Students and other protesters are in a tent camp on the campus of Columbia University in New York on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Students are demanding that colleges end investments supporting Israel's war in Gaza. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

University leaders are worried the unrest will disrupt the usual celebrations surrounding graduation.

Freedom of speech concerns

Since the war between Israel and Hamas started after Hamas' attack on Israel last October 7, college leaders have struggled. They are unsure how to protect students and their freedom of speech.

Recently, Columbia's president, Minouche Shafik, said the conflict in the Middle East is causing pain to both Jewish students and those who support Palestinians.

"But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view," she wrote in a message to the community.

History of protests

College graduation ceremonies, known as commencements, have been marked by protests in the past. Last year, students at Boston University turned their backs on speaker David Zaslav in a show of support for Hollywood writers who were on strike. In 1990, students at the all-women's Wellesley College in Massachusetts protested then-First Lady Barbara Bush. They said the school should have invited a speaker known for her accomplishments, not those of her husband.

While those protests were peaceful, some university leaders are concerned about possible violence this year. Some Jewish students say they feel unsafe at their schools.

The University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats published a report in March about fear at U.S. colleges. The report said that more than half of Muslim and Jewish students felt "personal danger" in the past year.

The Anti-Defamation League is a nonprofit organization that fights hatred of Jews. The group recently sent a letter to college and university presidents asking them to "take clear and decisive action" to make sure graduation ceremonies succeed.

One of the commencement speakers who might face protesters is President Joe Biden. He is expected to speak at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York state.

Protests likely to continue

Statements from university leaders, policy changes to prevent student protests and even arrests have not made a difference. One expert believes that students are correct to be upset about the actions of their university leaders. Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a lawyer and an official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Mitchell spoke about the cancellation of the student speech at USC. He said he was concerned that the school would not choose "a qualified visibly Muslim student who advocates for Palestine, to avoid what happened at USC."

At USC, the news that Asna Tabassum, a South Asian American Muslim, would not be permitted to give her commencement speech on May 10 led to days of protests.

Then, on April 25, USC said it would cancel the main part of its graduation ceremony, where Tabassum would have spoken and other well-known people would have appeared. The rest of the graduation activities will happen as planned, the school said.

"Schools are going to do more harm than good if they try to censor and silence commencement speakers," Mitchell added.

More than ceasefire

Other protests are demanding that schools cut ties to Israel or companies that support Israel's war effort. This includes companies that manufacture weapons sold to Israel. Students also want professors to stop taking money from the Israeli government if their research could be used for military technology.

Mahmoud Khalil is a student protest leader at Columbia University. He said students have been asking the university to sell its investments related to Israel since 2002.

Some pro-Palestine protesters at MIT said the university has received $11 million from Israel's defense ministry in the last 10 years.

Quinn Perian is a second-year student at MIT and the leader of a Jewish student group calling for a ceasefire. Perian called MIT "complicit," adding that colleges should be held responsible for the part they play in the war.

At the University of Michigan, students said the university invests with companies that then invest in Israeli businesses. The university said only a small percentage of the money it invests goes to Israeli businesses and most of it is done indirectly.

Students at Yale, Harvard and Emerson College in Boston are all asking that their schools make their investments public. They want to know where the school's money goes and whether it supports Israel's military.

Owen Buxton studies movies at Emerson College. Buxton was one of about 80 people present at a protest on school grounds. He recently spoke to the Associated Press, saying he did not plan to leave the protest.

"I would love to go home and have a shower," Buxton said. "But I will not leave until we reach our demands, or I am dragged out by police."

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Anna Matteo.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on reports by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

graduation –n. the ceremony marking the successful completion of studies at a school or college

valedictorian –n. a student who is among the best in a class, who is chosen to give a speech at the class's graduation ceremony

disrupt –v. to interfere with normal activities

accomplishment –n. something that is done for which people earn praise

decisive –adj. effective

advocate –v. to openly be in support of some cause, person or group

censor –v. to remove objectionable words and statements from writing, or other media

complicit –adj. involved in something

drag –v. to be pulled across the ground without care or exactness