Campus Speech | Protest

Columbia Cancels Main Commencement After Weeks of Pro-Palestinian Protests

Low Memorial Library at Columbia University in New York City, April 14, 2021.
Low Memorial Library at Columbia University in New York City, April 14, 2021. Photo by Susanna Granieri

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University is canceling its large university-wide commencement ceremony following weeks of pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled its campus and others across the U.S., but it will hold smaller school-based ceremonies this week and next, the school announced Monday.

“Based on feedback from our students, we have decided to focus attention on our Class Days and school-level graduation ceremonies, where students are honored individually alongside their peers, and to forego the university-wide ceremony that is scheduled for May 15,” officials at the Ivy League school in upper Manhattan said in a statement.

Noting that the past few weeks have been “incredibly difficult” for the community, the school 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 north at Columbia’s sports complex, officials said.

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, some students waved small Palestinian or Israeli flags as Northeastern University held its commencement Sunday in Fenway Park.

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. The student protesters are calling on their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel or otherwise contribute to the war effort.

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.