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University Graduation Season Gets Underway Amid Ongoing Protests

Pro-Palestinian protesters briefly interrupted a graduation ceremony at the University of Michigan on Saturday, as universities holding commencements braced for more tensions generated over the war in Gaza.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian supporters in kaffiyeh and graduation caps could be seen unfurling and holding up Palestinian flags in the aisles of the ceremony at Michigan Stadium, as a speaker invoked the school’s “Go Blue” slogan. Protesters marched down the center aisle toward the stage, chanting: “Regents, regents, you can’t hide! You are funding genocide!”

One person in the audience could be heard yelling back, “You’re ruining our graduation!” Some patrons sitting in private boxes hung Israeli flags from their seats, as university police blocked the protesters from moving closer to the stage and pushed them toward a section in the back of the venue.

Overhead, a plane flying the message “divest from Israel now! Free Palestine!” circled the stadium. Another plane with a banner offered a different message: “We stand with Israel. Jewish lives matter.”

The university in Ann Arbor is just one of many schools that have wrestled with how to handle student protests in recent weeks. They include Indiana University Bloomington, Northeastern University and Ohio State University, which are also set to hold graduation ceremonies this weekend.

At Ohio State, 38 people have been arrested, according to a tally by The Times. At Indiana University, 57, and at Northeastern University, 98.

The turmoil has added another complicated layer to graduation for students, many of whom had their high school senior-year celebrations abruptly cut short by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Universities have tried to ensure against major disruptions. Some schools plan to set up designated areas for protests, in a bid to allow the ceremonies to go forward without quashing free speech.

And some schools — like Northeastern’s ceremony at Fenway Park — are adhering to strict rules limiting what can be brought inside the large ceremony venues. (Many graduation venues already had limitations in place long before the protests.)

The University of Michigan trained volunteers working at the school’s 54 ceremonies on “how to manage disruptions.”

“This might include asking someone to relocate a sign or to otherwise stop ongoing disruptive behavior,” said Colleen Mastony, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan. She added, “Our goal is to support a successful and celebratory event.”

On Friday evening, a person not affiliated with the university was arrested after around 200 people gathered outside the University of Michigan Museum of Art to protest a dinner for recipients of honorary degrees, a spokeswoman for the university police department said.

At least two schools have altered their graduation ceremonies in light of the ongoing protests. The University of Vermont announced on Friday that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would no longer deliver a commencement address scheduled for later this month.

And the University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian’s commencement speech and appearances by celebrity speakers, then canceled its “main stage” commencement ceremony altogether, citing the possibility of disruptions. On Friday, the university announced a “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration” in the famed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for graduates to attend instead.

Over the last academic year, schools across the country have met the protests of thousands of students in different ways: Some administrations have negotiated with demonstrators over their demands, while others have called in the police.

While many protests have stopped short of physical confrontations, clashes have included the occupation of a university hall at Columbia University, vulgar and racist taunts hurled by white students at protesters at the University of Mississippi and a violent attack by pro-Israel counterprotesters at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Anna Betts and Jonathan Ellis contributed reporting.

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