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Bittersweet ceremonies mark troubled times on US campuses

Walkouts, cancellations and threats to pro-Palestinian students mar commencement celebrations

By MINGMEI LI in New York | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-06-11 07:31

Alumni of Columbia law school carry out a silent pro-Palestinian protest with kaffiyehs and banners, calling for a cease-fire during their graduation ceremony in New York on May 13.[Photo/Agencies]

Cancellations spread

Another school in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, was one of the first universities to announce the cancellation of its main graduation ceremony. The event was scheduled for May 10 and more than 65,000 students and guests were expected to attend.

The cancellation followed campus protests over the Israel-Palestine conflict, during which five students were arrested. There was also controversy over the selection of pro-Palestinian student Asna Tabassum as class valedictorian, which was opposed by pro-Israel groups.

Columbia University in New York City, the epicenter of the pro-Palestinian protests, canceled its main university-wide commencement ceremony set for May 15, and instead held smaller ceremonies for each of its 19 colleges. The smaller ceremonies were mostly held at its athletics facility, the Baker Athletics Complex, situated 100 blocks north on 218th Street in Inwood.

Columbia's main campus had been locked down since April 30, after student protesters occupied Hamilton Hall.

Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, called in police to remove the student protesters, with 46 pro-Palestine protesters inside the hall and more than 100 people gathered outside the campus.

Shafik said her decision was based on the school's desire to host the graduation ceremony on campus and to remove the tent encampment, which had occupied the central lawn for two weeks. However, despite two rounds of police intervention, the main commencement ceremony had to be canceled.

"Holding a large commencement ceremony on our campus presented security concerns that unfortunately proved insurmountable," Ben Chang, a university spokesman, said.

In a statement issued by the university on May 1, Shafik said the "drastic escalation of many months of protest activity pushed the university to the brink, creating a disruptive environment for everyone and raising safety risks to an intolerable level."

Darializa Avila Chevalier, an alumna of Columbia University who supports the student protesters, said the students had their priorities straight. "They have been witnessing a genocide for the last seven months," she told China Daily.

Chevalier said she has friends who were at the encampment who were due to graduate this year. "But a graduation (ceremony) is such a small price to pay," she said.

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