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News / Nation & World

Columbia University cancels main commencement after weeks of pro-Palestinian protests

By KAREN MATTHEWS, Associated Press
Published: May 6, 2024, 10:20am

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University canceled its large university-wide commencement ceremony Monday following weeks of pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled its campus and others across the U.S., but said students will still be able to celebrate at a series of smaller, school-based ceremonies this week and next.

The decision comes as universities around the country are wrangling with how to handle commencements. Another campus shaken by protests, Emory University, announced Monday that it would move its commencement from its campus quadrangle in Atlanta to a suburban arena. But others, including the University of Michigan, Indiana University and Northeastern, have pulled off ceremonies with few disruptions.

Columbia’s decision to cancel its main ceremonies scheduled for May 15 saves its president, Nemat Shafik, from having to deliver a commencement address in the same part of campus where police dismantled a protest encampment last week.

Noting that the past few weeks have been “incredibly difficult” for the community, the Ivy League school in upper Manhattan said in its announcement that it made the decision after discussions with students.

“Our students emphasized that these smaller-scale, school-based celebrations are most meaningful to them and their families,” officials said. “They are eager to cross the stage to applause and family pride and hear from their school’s invited guest speakers.”

Most of the ceremonies that had been scheduled for the south lawn of the main campus, where encampments were taken down last week, will take place about 5 miles (8 kilometers) north at Columbia’s sports complex, officials said.

Speakers at some of Columbia’s still-scheduled graduation ceremonies include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames, former CNN anchor Poppy Harlow, political scientist Ian Bremmer and Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, director of the National Institutes of Health. Also, actor Michael J. Fox is scheduled to receive a medal for distinguished service from Columbia’s Teachers College.

Columbia had already canceled in-person classes. More than 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s green or occupied an academic building were arrested in recent weeks, and similar encampments sprouted up at universities around the country as schools struggled with where to draw the line between allowing free expression while maintaining safe and inclusive campuses.

The University of Southern California earlier canceled its main graduation ceremony while allowing other commencement activities to continue. Students abandoned their camp at USC early Sunday after being surrounded by police and threatened with arrest.

Other universities have held their graduation ceremonies with beefed-up security. The University of Michigan’s ceremony was interrupted by chanting a few times Saturday, while in Boston on Sunday, some students waved small Palestinian or Israeli flags as Northeastern University held its commencement in Fenway Park.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, disruptions continued Monday following the dismantling of a pro-Palestinian encampment and some 200 arrests last week. Police detained numerous people in a parking structure. The university also said classes held in one building, Monroe Hall, would move online “due to ongoing disruptions” but did not provide details.

The protests stem from the conflict that started Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 hostages. Student protesters are calling on their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel or otherwise contribute to the war effort.

Hamas announced Monday that it has accepted an Egyptian-Qatari proposal for a cease-fire to halt the war in Gaza. There was no immediate comment from Israel on the deal, and details of the proposal have not yet been released.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza that has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Israeli strikes have devastated the enclave and displaced most of its inhabitants.

Emory’s 16,000-student university is one of many that has seen repeated protests over the war.

Ceremonies scheduled for May 13 will now be held at the GasSouth Arena and Convocation Center in Duluth, almost 20 miles (30 kilometers) northeast of the university’s Atlanta campus, President Gregory Fenves said in an open letter.

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“Please know that this decision was not taken lightly,” Fenves wrote. “It was made in close consultation with the Emory Police Department, security advisors and other agencies — each of which advised against holding commencement events on our campuses.”

The university called outside police agencies to arrest 28 people after an encampment was erected on the quad on April 25. After initially claiming the protesters were outsiders, the university later said 20 were Emory students and three were faculty members. Police used pepper balls and electric stun guns to subdue some of the people who were arrested. Fenves later apologized.

Protests have continued on the campus since then, including some additional arrests.