Columbia Ditches University-Wide Commencement Ceremony Amid Gaza Protests

Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

Columbia is canceling its university-wide commencement ceremony later this month and will instead proceed with “smaller-scale, school-based celebrations,” officials said Monday, after several weeks of turmoil on campus amid protests around Israel’s war in Gaza.

In a statement, the Ivy League school said “Class Days and school-level ceremonies, where students are honored individually alongside their peers,” would form the “centerpiece” of commencement activities “rather than the University-wide ceremony that is scheduled for May 15.” It added that it would be focusing resources on ensuring that the ceremonies are kept “safe, respectful, and running smoothly.”

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The decision comes after weeks of tension between pro-Palestinian activists and school officials that have seen demonstrators suspended and even arrested in police crackdowns. The encampment that sprang up at the New York City campus has inspired activists to launch similar protest campaigns at other schools around the U.S. and internationally.

In announcing the decision to “forego” the university-wide commencement ceremony, Columbia said students had said that smaller-scale celebrations are “most meaningful to them.” “They are eager to cross the stage to applause and family pride and hear from their school’s invited guest speakers,” the statement read. It also acknowledged that the “past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community.”

The ceremonies that will go ahead, Columbia said, will be relocated from the Morningside Heights campus—where most of the protests have unfolded—to an athletics complex and other off-campus sites.

As well as calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, protesters have demanded that Columbia take specific action too, including divesting from businesses that have ties to Israel. The standoff has led to some of the most dramatic scenes of the ongoing national student protests, reaching a crescendo last week as police officers stormed into a university building being occupied by dozens of activists who had barricaded themselves inside.

Columbia president Minouche Shafik wrote in a message to the school community last week that the occupation of Hamilton Hall caused her “deep sadness.” “I am sorry we reached this point,” she wrote, adding that she hoped “that we can use the weeks ahead to restore calm, allow students to complete their academic work, and honor their achievements at Commencement.”

The decision to scrap the main ceremony follows a similar decision taken last month by the University of Southern California. Los Angeles Police Department officers helped to remove an encampment at USC early Sunday.

Despite the cancellation at Columbia, the school said Monday it was nevertheless “looking at the possibility of a festive event on May 15 to take the place of the large, formal ceremony.” “We are eager to all come together for our graduates and celebrate our fellow Columbians as they, and we, look ahead to the future,” the university’s statement read.

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