Universities brace for disruption at graduations by Gaza war protesters

Students marching and holding signs
Rally at University of Michigan [Reuters]

The next chapter of campus protests may soon begin, with universities across the US preparing for possible disruptions at graduation ceremonies.

Four universities rocked by pro-Palestinian protests will hold graduations this weekend.

Many others, including Columbia University, have scheduled ceremonies throughout the month and in June.

Universities are working to enhance security while protesters contemplate walkouts and other possible actions.

Protesters set up camps and staged campus demonstrations to call on their universities to cut ties with Israel over the war in Gaza.

Many colleges responded by calling police, leading to thousands of arrests.

There have been demonstrations at nearly 140 institutions across 45 states and Washington DC since the protests started at Columbia University last month, according to a BBC tally.

Student protesters have so far, for the most part, been quiet about plans for disruptions at graduations, which are known as commencements in the US.

At Indiana University, however, IU Divest and the Palestine Solidarity Committee - whose camp at Indiana University was cleared by police twice in recent weeks - have called for a walk-out at graduation events.

"Make your pro-Palestine stance clear at the 'Liberated Zone' instead," reads a post on Instagram, referencing a protest area at the university's campus in Bloomington. "Join us in wearing your keffiyeh along with your cap and gown."

The walk-out will be timed to happen when Pamela Whitten, the university president, begins to speak.

Ms Whitten faced a no-confidence vote earlier in April from faculty members concerned about academic freedom after the cancellation of a Palestinian artist's exhibition and the suspension of a faculty member who served as a sponsor for a pro-Palestinian student group.

Faculty members have also discussed holding "a silent protest" outside the commencement to make their displeasure known without interfering with the event, according to two sources who asked to remain anonymous.

The University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Connecticut - all of which have experienced demonstrations over the last two weeks - have graduations on 4 and 5 May.

University of Michigan officials have announced plans for designated protest areas, where banners and flags will be prohibited and protesters will be subject to security screenings.

The commencement will be watched over by volunteers who will "respond to disruptions, beginning with warnings", according to the university's website.

Alifa Chowdhury, of the Tahrir Coalition protest group, declined to comment on whether any disruptions were planned. She said the university had "completely ignored" offers to negotiate.

"It makes sense that they have been implementing strategies and training staff to make sure protests aren't happening," she said.

Police in riot gear, protesters holding phones
Police at the Ohio State encampment [Reuters]

Nearly 200 miles (320km) to the south, Ohio State University President Ted Carter has vowed to protect students' right to free speech while at the same time enforcing rules that bar "intentional disruptions of university events, classes, exams or programming, including commencement".

Heba Latif, a Palestinian-American student and co-president of the school's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), would not say whether any protests were planned for the 5 May commencement ceremony.

Graduation is scheduled for 15 May at Columbia. Police entered the campus earlier this week to clear a student occupation and are due to remain on campus throughout the commencement season.

Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian international student at Columbia, told the BBC that the protest movement would continue regardless.

"Students have been protesting since October," said Mr Khalil.

"They've received disciplinary notices from the university, and suspensions, probation, and that has not stopped anyone.

"I don't see how bringing in the police will stop this movement."

Protesters at Columbia did not reply when asked repeatedly if any disruptions were planned.