Harvard Sparks 1,000-Person Commencement Walkout After Barring 13 From Graduating

Danielle Parhizkaran/Getty
Danielle Parhizkaran/Getty

A wave of protests that culminated in a 1,000-person walkout marked Harvard University’s commencement ceremonies Thursday, sparked by its highest governing body’s decision to deny a faculty-led action to let 13 students who participated in pro-Palestinian protests walk at their graduation.

Beyond the gates where graduates lined up, three people held a banner reading “Stop the Genocide in Gaza” as several graduates in cap and gown donned keffiyehs and other displays of support for Palestine. Earlier Thursday morning, students in support of the 13 graduates who had been barred from walking in the ceremony rallied with signs like “This Jew Stands With Palestine” and “Let Them Graduate.”

Harvard Occupied Out of Palestine, the student coalition that organized the university’s encampment, distributed copies of a parody newspaper titled The Harvard Crimeson detailing its demands for divestment from Israel and accusing the school newspaper of refusing to talk about Palestine. The move mimics a similar satirical paper that targeted The New York Times, accusing the paper of pro-Israel bias and deriding it as “The New York War Crimes.”

Counterprotesters funded planes over Harvard Yard that trailed the slogan “Jewish Lives Matter.US” and flew the Israeli and American flags high in the sky, the Harvard Crimson reported, as the slow creep of commencement processions began. Outside the Yard, trucks bearing the names and faces of students who protested for Palestine circled the square, beneath a banner declaring them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” The trucks were financed by Accuracy in Media, which has been doxxing students all year, the Crimson reported.

During the ceremony, undergraduate student speaker Shruthi Kumar put the institution on blast in her commencement address, criticizing the school for punishing more than a dozen of her peers for their activism. Graduate speaker Robert L. Clinton IV also threw a dig at the university leaders for the same reason, while the administrators sat expressionless onstage.

Then, as the names began to be called for the conferral of degrees, more than 1,000 people stood up and walked out of the ceremony, chanting “Let them walk” in support of their 13 peers barred from graduation. The administrators, handing out degrees and reading names, reacted with all the poise of stage actors, appearing unfazed and raising their voices slightly to be heard over the din of the crowd.

The protesters marched onto another site not far from Harvard Yard, and promptly began their “People’s Commencement” ceremony, which would include honors for the 13 seniors denied from the official procession.

The demonstrations came to a head after a long year of encampments, resignations, and lawsuits over the university’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests on campus, which some argued threatened the safety of Jewish students. Others have criticized Harvard, like many of its ivy-trellised peers, of unfairly censoring and punishing students who display pro-Palestinian views.

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Thursday’s commencement demonstrations were in direct response to the Harvard Corporation’s decision to bar 13 pro-Palestinian protesters from partaking in commencement festivities over their disciplinary standing. Late Tuesday night, the corporation rejected an amendment proposed by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) to add 13 students to the list of graduates whose names had been left off the roll.

Traditionally, the registrar sends the list of those who have met graduation requirements and are in good standing for approval by FAS, which then sends the list to the corporation. The event usually proceeds without incident, but this year, about 500 faculty and staff members signed onto a letter demanding the restoration of those 13 students—including two Rhodes scholars—to the list of graduates. Those students’ participation in pro-Palestinian protests led to disciplinary action, which meant they were no longer in good standing and not eligible for degree conferral.

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In a show of force, 115 faculty members were present at the usually sedate meeting to support the students. But the corporation shut it down, saying that because the amendment did not challenge the disciplinary status of the students, the corporation could not allow them to walk.

“Because the students included as the result of Monday’s amendment are not in good standing, we cannot responsibly vote to award them degrees at this time,” the corporation said Wednesday. It added that allowing the 13 protesters to receive degrees would be unfair to other students not in good standing for reasons unrelated to the protests.

But the decision to bar the protesters from degree conferral will almost certainly set off a circular chain of events: Harvard Occupied Out of Palestine, the pro-Palestinian student coalition that organized the university’s encampment, signaled its willingness to disrupt the ceremony anyway.

Graduation Can’t Stop These Students From Protesting

“Your repression only makes us stronger,” the organization wrote Wednesday night, just 12 hours before commencement exercises were set to begin. “Collective punishment will not slow us down. There can be no peace during genocide, and we will not rest until Harvard divests.”

On Thursday morning, Harvard Occupied Out of Palestine posted an update from the front gates.

“Good morning from Harvard’s commencement,” it wrote in an Instagram post.

Hanging from the closed gates to the college was a white banner with text in black, green, and red—the colors of the Palestinian flag. “Harvard Funds Genocide,” the banner read.

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