How Duke’s commencement protest compares to institutions nationwide

Commencement walk-outs are the latest manifestation of pro-Palestinian protests that have swept college campuses nationwide. Amid heightened tensions following weeks of encampments and clashes with authorities, some colleges opted to cancel or relocate their commencement ceremonies, while others proceeded with the celebrations as planned. 

Around a hundred pro-Palestinian graduates walked out of Duke’s Class of 2024 Commencement Ceremony May 12 in protest of actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld delivering this year’s commencement address, given his vocal support for Israel throughout the Israel-Hamas war. The demonstrators also reiterated their calls for the University to “disclose and divest” from its holdings in Israel.

The walk-out culminated in an alternative commencement ceremony where Duke graduates gathered on Abele Quad to deliver speeches and confer honorary degrees. Seniors, faculty and community members then marched to the Duke Chapel, unfurling a banner that read “Seniors Against Apartheid; Take a Moral Stand.”

Similarly to pro-Palestinian graduates at Duke, protesters from institutions across the country have advocated for solidarity with Palestinians by walking out of their commencement ceremonies and hosting alternative ones, which some have termed “The People’s Graduation.”

While institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Emory University celebrated commencement without any disruptions, some universities like Harvard University and Pomona College saw more vocal expressions of student protest with occasional outbursts of violence. Disruptions even occurred at Brown University — where administration had previously agreed to discuss student demands for divestment.

Walk-outs and protests

The largest walk-out thus far erupted May 23 at Harvard when over 1,000 graduates decked out in caps and gowns paraded out of their commencement ceremony during the conferral of degrees. The graduation ceremony was held in Harvard Yard, where student group Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine had previously established a three-week encampment.

Protesters expressed discontent at the Harvard Corporation’s decision to withhold diplomas from 13 graduating seniors who face disciplinary charges for participating in the encampment, a move that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences unsuccessfully attempted to prevent days prior. The student demonstrators chanted “let them walk” and noted that Harvard’s decision had breached the agreement between Harvard President Alan Garber and student demonstrators to end the encampment. 

The commencement day protest at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill bore similarity to Duke’s. During the May 11 ceremony, a group of 10 students rose from their seats and left the stadium through the middle aisle while holding two Palestinian flags. The walk-out — greeted by jeers, cheers and chants of “U.S.A.” — interrupted the closing remarks delivered by UNC Chancellor Lee Roberts, who waited for the protesters to be escorted out of the stadium by the police.

With heightened security measures including a clear bag policy and a requirement that graduates present their UNC One Cards to staff before entering the stadium, the ceremony unfolded without any major incidents.

Some graduating seniors at Emerson College in Boston interrupted the May 12 processions on the stage, with some throwing their caps and gowns across the stage and refusing to shake President Jay Bernhardt’s hands as he presented them with diplomas. One senior stood at the center of the stage without robes and displayed her shirt which read “Emerson Has Blood.”

Pomona College — located in Claremont, Calif. — moved its commencement ceremony off campus to Los Angeles in response to the ongoing “Gaza solidarity encampment” organized by the student coalition Pomona Divest from Apartheid. However, the relocation failed to prevent tensions from escalating into confrontations between protesters and the Los Angeles Police Department. 

According to the police, more than 50 demonstrators gathered outside Shrine Auditorium — where the commencement was relocated — at the start of the May 12 ceremony and attempted to block the entrance to the event. Protesters chanted the controversial slogan “from the river to the sea” in defense of their encampment and called for the college to meet their demands for divestment.

As dozens of officers lined up to form skirmish lines and moved the crowd back, student protesters began to clash with police forces, resulting in the arrest of one protester.  

In contrast, commencement ceremonies at Princeton University and Cornell University saw small demonstrations but remained largely peaceful.

Princeton’s May 28 commencement ceremony saw dozens of student protesters silently stand up and turn their backs on Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber as he delivered his address. More than 15 students wearing keffiyehs then exited the stadium separately. Pro-Palestinian graduates also held banners with a QR code that linked to an open pledge that alumni and students not donate to the University unless calls for divestment are met. 

As Cornell President Martha Pollack began her commencement address, several protesting graduates walked up to the podium holding a banner that read “Cornell profits from genocide” and chanting the words “any person, any study, Cornell trustees’ hands are bloody.” 

Students adorned their graduation caps with the colors of the Palestinian flag to advocate that the university call for a cease-fire in Gaza and divest from corporations supporting the Israel-Hamas war. The May 25 protest was met with a mix of cheers and boos from the crowd of about 8,000 graduates.

At Brown’s commencement, graduates shouted pro-Palestinian slogans at university President Christina Paxson as she addressed the crowd. Amid continued shouts from the protesters, she said “I would really like to give you your degrees.”

The disruption at the May 26 commencement ceremony came about a month after university administration and encampment organizers came to an agreement that would allow students to present its arguments for divestment to The Corporation — Brown’s highest governing body — if they ended the encampment.

Brown Alumni for Palestine — which members said represent over 2,000 alumni — claimed responsibility for the disruption at the ceremony. Outside of the event, the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel organized its own protest, which included a plane trailing a banner reading “Brown 4 Israel” that flew above.

Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony originally scheduled for May 15 and instead hosted multiple school-based celebrations, citing security concerns. After weeks of protests, encampments and student takeovers on campus, the administration was reluctant to host the traditional universitywide ceremony on South Lawn where the “Gaza solidarity encampment” was cleared out April 30 by the New York Police Department.

The smaller-scale commencement ceremonies were punctuated by individual acts of protest. At the Columbia School of Social Work’s May 10 ceremony, protesting graduates wore zip-tie handcuffs and keffiyehs, displayed pro-Palestinian flyers and one graduate ripped up their diploma on stage.

The University of Southern California also canceled its “main stage” commencement ceremony and instead held school-specific ceremonies. The decision came after the university announced that it would no longer be letting Class of 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum deliver her graduation speech due to accusations from pro-Israel groups that she “[promoted] antisemitic views” through her social media presence. The university also claimed that the increased safety protocols were unable to accommodate the 65,000 guests and students present at a traditional commencement.

Both Emory and UPenn’s administration relied on law enforcement authorities to put an end to encampments on their campuses. Despite weeks of student activism, the universities ultimately decided to keep the ceremonies as scheduled but implemented heightened safety and security measures. Emory moved its venue off campus, and UPenn mandated airport-style security screenings for all graduates and guests. The commencement ceremonies at the two universities proceeded with minimal disruption.

‘The People’s Graduation’

Following the commencement walk-out at Harvard, student organizers conducted a mock commencement ceremony inside Harvard Epworth Church in honor of the 13 seniors who were barred from graduating. At the event, which was attended by hundreds of graduates and their families, the seniors were presented with certificates by “The People’s University.” 

Diplomas signed by Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine recognized the ongoing “scholasticide” in Gaza, pointing to the “students in Palestine who will not get to graduate because of the ongoing Nakba,” and expressed solidarity with the Harvard seniors who were unable to graduate.

UNC’s “People's Graduation” took place at the Peace and Justice Plaza the morning before the official commencement ceremony. To celebrate the suspended seniors and community members who took part in the April 30 "Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment" on UNC’s campus, the graduates received diplomas with degrees such as a "Bachelor of Arts in Care, Support and Community" and a "Bachelor of Science in Dealing with Administration."

Marching over to the South Building, a group of demonstrators splattered red paint on the steps of the building and placed red handprints on its columns as a symbol of the blood of those killed and injured in the Israel-Hamas war. The group chanted while students and families walked past, then observed a 15-minute moment of silence to honor the victims of the conflict. 

At Columbia, hundreds of students from across New York City attended the unofficial “counter-commencement” hosted by a group of faculty members at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine after the university called off its main commencement ceremony. Graduates dressed in full regalia and decorated caps listened to remarks by religious leaders commending them for seeking justice and “keeping the world’s attention on this terrifying war.” 

Staff members handed out programs that featured a list of Palestinian infants killed in Gaza and illustrations of the red poppy, the Palestinian national symbol. The event concluded as audience members cheered on the graduates and chanted “free, free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Lucas Lin | University News Editor

Lucas Lin is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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