Pro-Palestine protests force colleges to rethink graduation plans

Schools are taking a range of steps to head off problems at commencement—though some of those efforts are backfiring.
Schools are taking a range of steps to head off problems at commencement—though some of those efforts are backfiring.

Summary

Schools are scrambling to minimize disruption of commencement celebrations as Israel-Hamas conflict stokes tensions.

Ezra Dayanim anticipates his commencement ceremony at Columbia University next month will be interrupted by hisses and boos, especially when the university’s president addresses the crowd.

He is just hoping the disruption doesn’t go beyond that.

Dayanim, who is graduating this spring with a joint degree from Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, plans to bring his parents and fiancée to the ceremony. He has generally felt safe around school, he said, and none of his guests have expressed reservations about attending.

But in light of what he described as a more hostile mood on campus in recent days due to confrontations over the Israel-Hamas war, he is relieved his grandparents aren’t making the trip like they did when his sister graduated from Barnard College a few years ago.

“I can’t imagine my grandparents being able to walk around on campus peacefully," he said. “All it takes is one person to say something, knock them over."

With a fresh round of pro-Palestinian protests sweeping campuses nationwide, university administrators are rethinking their plans for celebrating spring graduation with an eye toward safeguarding students and guests, and their own reputations, from potentially ugly and violent political disputes.

“We cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view," Columbia President Minouche Shafik said in a letter to the school community Monday.

Concerned about bad optics during an extremely public moment, as well as the physical safety of the tens of thousands of campus visitors, schools are taking a range of steps to head off problems at commencement—though some of those efforts are backfiring.

The University of Southern California caused an uproar last week after scrapping a planned speech from its valedictorian, a Muslim student who has advocated for Palestinians. The school cited safety concerns amid increasingly heated conversations over the original selection; demonstrators criticized the move with a wave of protests.

Days later, USC said it also wouldn’t have outside speakers and honorees at its May 10 commencement ceremony, which draws 65,000 people to campus. USC said on Friday that it will provide more updates this week.

The University of Michigan, which will hold its commencement ceremony on May 4, is setting up designated areas for protests outside venues at many of its ceremonies, according to an update posted to the school’s website.

“Commencement ceremonies have been the site of free expression and peaceful protest for decades and will likely continue to be," the school said, adding that it doesn’t try to prevent peaceful protests or other protected speech and leadership “will generally be patient" with lawful disruptions.

However, Michigan will prohibit banners and flags at commencement events and said it aims to keep the focus on celebrating graduates’ successes. “If protests significantly impede the program, leadership will take steps to de-escalate and address the interruption," the school said.

Many in this year’s graduating class missed their high school ceremonies four years ago, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. University leaders say they are trying to avoid having a major life moment marred a second time for those students.

On Monday, a team of workers in navy blue was covering the grass on a portion of Columbia’s main lawn with a layer of turf, to be topped by folding chairs closer to the May 15 event.

Across a brick walkway, the other lawn was covered with an encampment of tents, Palestinian flags and signs declaring the space a “liberated zone."

A coalition of faculty and staff at Columbia, Barnard and the Teachers College called for faculty to boycott commencement activities unless the school meets a number of demands articulated by those in the encampment since last week. The list includes removing city police from campus, reinstating student groups that have lost official recognition because of prior protest activity, divesting itself from companies tied to weapons manufacturing and offering amnesty for students and faculty disciplined for their recent protest actions.

Brian Cohen, executive director of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said his team’s focus is on the current campus tensions at the start of the Passover holiday. But as the university begins to detail its commencement plans, he said Hillel will consider its options “to ensure that Jewish students have a safe and celebratory ceremony."

—Erin Ailworth contributed to this article.

Write to Melissa Korn at Melissa.Korn@wsj.com

A lawn at Columbia University is covered with an encampment of tents, Palestinian flags and signs declaring the space a ‘liberated zone.’
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A lawn at Columbia University is covered with an encampment of tents, Palestinian flags and signs declaring the space a ‘liberated zone.’
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