Columbia cancels university-wide graduation ceremony

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Columbia University has cancelled its main graduation ceremony planned for next week amid rising concerns that continued pro-Palestinian student protests across the US could pose safety concerns on American campuses.

Columbia said it would abandon its annual university-wide commencement ceremony, scheduled for May 15 on the south lawn of its main Morningside campus, where protests, a student encampment and the brief occupation of a campus building took place.

Instead, it said in a statement that it would focus on smaller ceremonies for its individual schools, most to be held at its Baker Athletics Complex, far from its main undergraduate campus. It said the decision followed consultation with students who had indicated the smaller celebrations were “most meaningful to them and their families”.

The decision caps weeks of upheaval at the Ivy League school, which included raids by New York City police, who were asked twice by university leadership to break up an encampment and remove student protesters from a building they briefly occupied.

Some students had hoped the May 15 ceremonies could serve as a moment for the embattled Columbia president, Minouche Shafik, to bring the community together.

One student enrolled in history and Jewish thought said Shafik could use the opportunity to “teach” students about why violence sparked by the protests was “wrong”. When asked whether he thought the protesters would be receptive to that message, he said “no” — but “she needs to try anyway”.

The university’s actions have triggered a series of copycat encampments and demonstrations followed by police interventions at other institutions from Georgia to California, in echoes of demonstrations during the 1968 Vietnam protests in the US.

Administrators are concerned about further disruption in the build-up to graduation ceremonies this month, when students and their families gather to celebrate the completion of their studies.

The University of Southern California already cancelled its main ceremony, and on Monday the interim president of the University of Pennsylvania warned that he may need to take more drastic action to clear an encampment on the campus’s main College Green.

“Every day the encampment exists, the campus is less safe,” wrote Larry Jameson, who took over leadership of the Ivy League school after his predecessor, Liz Magill, was forced to resign over her handling of the crisis. “Some have aimed to characterize this as a peaceful protest. It is not.”

Even institutions such as the University of Chicago, which has long stressed its commitment to free speech, have warned of tougher measures against protesters, following concerns over conflict and damage to property.

Several other elite universities including Vassar, Brown and Northwestern, have defused demonstrations with agreements to discuss student demands including divestment from companies linked to Israel’s war against Hamas. None has agreed to sell investments from their endowments.

Columbia did not cite the student protests in its statement on Monday but said its focus in the ceremonies would be “on keeping them safe, respectful, and running smoothly”. It added: “These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community.”

It added that it was “focused on making our graduation experience truly special” and was “looking at the possibility of a festive event on May 15 to take the place of the large, formal ceremony”.


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