Universities Struggle with Graduation Protests

Universities Struggle with Graduation Protests

Emory hosted a mostly peaceful graduation after moving its ceremony to an auditorium located miles from the campus.

Emory President Gregory Fenves moved commencement off the campus to the Gas South Arena in Duluth for security reasons.
Emory President Gregory Fenves moved commencement off the campus to the Gas South Arena in Duluth for security reasons.

Several major universities around the country are still having to contend with violent protests against Israel and the war in Gaza.

At Stanford University, which had scheduled its graduation ceremonies for June 16, police were called in on June 5, the last day of spring classes, to clear pro-Palestinian demonstrators who barricaded themselves in the university president’s office.

Thirteen demonstrators were arrested after they broke into the office and caused what the university described as “extensive graffiti vandalism on the sandstone buildings and columns of the Main Quad” that included “vile and hateful sentiments that we condemn in the strongest terms.”

The protesters had occupied the office to back up their demands that the university divest itself from companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, and Chevron that they said provided support for Israel’s military forces.

After the offices were cleared, the university also cleared a pro-Palestinian encampment and a pro-Israel display that was first constructed in late April. Jewish students at Stanford who have said they have been harassed and intimidated by the protesters indicated that the university had taken too long to take action to clear the campus and restore order.

The university indicated that all of the students who were arrested were being suspended and those who were scheduled to graduate this month would not be allowed to do so.

Nationally, more than 3,000 people have been arrested or detained as a result of protests against the war in Gaza.

University President Richard Saller issued a statement condemning the violent takeover of his offices.

“We are appalled that our students chose to take this action and we will work with law enforcement to ensure that they face the full consequences allowed by law.”

Emory University also had to take action in late April against protesters who set up tents on the university’s quadrangle as preparations were beginning there for commencement. Emory president, Gregory Fenves, had campus police call in officers from the Georgia State Patrol and the Atlanta Police department. Twenty-five demonstrators were arrested, some forcibly, by officers.

In a move that broke with longstanding historical precedent, Fenves decided to move commencement ceremonies from the tree-shaded quad to the more secure Gas South Arena, 23 miles away off I-85 in Duluth. Fenves warned those taking part in the ceremonies that he would not stand for any interruptions. He indicated that if that were to happen, he would halt the ceremonies and forcibly remove those responsible. The commencement was relatively peaceful.

Outside the arena, pro-Palestinian activists handed out small Palestinian flags to those graduates who wanted them. They were asked to hand them to university officials as they came forward during commencement to claim their diplomas.

Nearly a thousand students walked out of the Harvard commencement to protest treatment of arrested student protestors.

Across town at Morehouse College, the historically Black college had President Joe Biden as their commencement speaker. Several students there, some wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarves, turned their chairs and sat with their backs to the President as he spoke. The university’s president had threatened to end commencement ceremonies if protesters caused security to arrest them.

The most outspoken words of protest came from the senior valedictorian, DeAngelo Fletcher, who concluded his speech with a call to end the Gaza war.

“For the first time in our lives, we’ve heard the global community sing one harmonious song that transcends language and culture,” he said. “It is my sense as a Morehouse Man, nay — as a human being — to call for an immediate and a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.”

At Columbia University, where protests have been intense, the school in early May cancelled its main graduation ceremony opting for smaller ceremonies at individual colleges there.

At graduation exercises at Harvard, May 23, about 1,000 students walked out during the ceremony in protest against the decision by the Harvard Corporation, the school’s governing body, to bar 13 undergraduates who were arrested for protesting the war between Israel and Hamas.

A small airplane was said to have flown low over the university trailing a banner that combined the American and Israeli flags.

The commencement speaker, Maria Ressa, a journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, seemed to call for support for the protesters when she said, during her address, “Harvard you are being tested.”

The hundreds of students who walked out later assembled in a Methodist church near the Harvard campus to stage what they called a “people’s commencement” that turned into yet another demonstration in support of Palestinians.

In the weeks leading up to the commencement ceremonies, college campuses have seen protests that have ranged from relatively calm demonstrations to what have amounted to pitched battles, such as the one that took place at UCLA in Los Angeles between supporters of Israel and their opponents.

By one estimate, nationally, more than 3,000 people have been arrested or detained.

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