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Columbia Cancels University-wide Commencement Ceremony After Weeks of Protests on Campus

Protestors wave Palestinian flags on the West Lawn of Columbia University on April 29, 2024 in New York. Student demonstrators at Columbia University, the epicenter of pro-Palestinian protests that have erupted at US colleges, said Monday they would not budge until the school met their demands, defying an ultimatum to disperse or face suspension. 

Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Columbia will replace its universitywide commencement ceremony on May 15 with “smaller-scale, school-based celebrations,” university officials announced Monday, after weeks of pro-Palestinian and counterprotests on campus.

The Ivy League school said the decision was made after discussions with student leaders. Security concerns were a main reason behind the decision, a university official told NBC News.

“Our students emphasized that these smaller-scale, school-based celebrations are most meaningful to them and their families,” the university said Monday. “They are eager to cross the stage to applause and family pride and hear from their school’s invited guest speakers. As a result, we will focus our resources on those school ceremonies and on keeping them safe, respectful, and running smoothly.”

Pro-Palestinian protests sprouted on campus April 17 when students pitched about 50 tents while demanding a cease-fire in Gaza and insisting the university divest from companies that they say could be profiting from the war.

On the evening of April 30, New York City police officers clad in riot gear arrived on campus at the request of university administrators and forced their way into the barricaded Hamilton Hall, which protesters had taken over and renamed Hind’s Hall, after a 6-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed in Gaza. The encampment was cleared and more than 100 people were arrested.

The arrests have shaken confidence in the university’s president Minouche Shafik among some students and faculty at Columbia. In a letter to the New York Police Department asking for its assistance to clear Hamilton Hall, the university president said the occupation there “left us no choice.”

In its request for police assistance, Columbia asked the NYPD to stay on campus until at least May 17, two days after commencement.

A source at the university previously said Columbia was rethinking its commencement ceremony. After a meeting with top university leaders Friday, two members of student government said administrators indicated they are not sure they can hold a commencement ceremony on the main Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan because of security concerns.

Protests similar to the one seen in Columbia quickly appeared at college campuses across the country, concerning administrations about their commencement ceremonies as well.

On Saturday, students waved Palestinian flags during the University of Michigan’s commencement. Banners in the sky displayed messages such as “DIVEST FROM ISRAEL NOW! FREE PALESTINE!” and “WE STAND WITH ISRAEL JEWISH LIVES MATTER.”

In a statement issued following commencement, University of Michigan assistant vice president for public affairs Colleen Mastony said approximately 75 protesters staged a demonstration at the beginning of the program by walking up to the main aisle and chanting. They were escorted by public safety personnel to the rear of the stadium, where they stayed until commencement ended. There were no arrests, Mastony said in a statement following commencement.

Last month, the University of Southern California in Los Angeles said it was canceling its main commencement ceremony, scheduled for May 10, that was set to include a keynote address from alumnus Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and a presentation of honorary degrees to tennis star Billie Jean King and others.

The university previously canceled a commencement speech by a Muslim valedictorian following controversy over her social media posts about Israel’s war in Gaza. But USC said it would still host individual school commencement ceremonies and other related events.

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