Columbia University Cancels Commencement Amid Pro-Palestinian Protests

By Claire Wilson 

May 8, 2024

On Thursday, April 18th, over a hundred protesters participating in a pro-Palistinian encampment were arrested at Columbia University. The protestors were “opposing Israeli military action in Gaza and demanding the school divest from companies they claim ‘profit from Israeli apartheid,’ according to the Associated Press. Adrian Florido of NPR explains, “Columbia doesn't disclose most of its investments, but student activists for decades have called on universities to be more transparent and to sell off stock in companies engaging in what they see as unethical conduct.” These companies include Google, Amazon and Airbnb. 

On Tuesday, April 30, protesters seized Hamilton Hall, an academic building on the Morningside Heights campus of the university. A large group of students, staff, alumni and allies unaffiliated with the school who had been participating in the tent encampment posted a large banner, renaming the building “Hind's Hall." Hind Rajab was a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by the Israel Defense Forces. The hall was forcibly cleared by the NYPD that night, and 46 arrests were made, 56 years to the day after the 1968 occupation by the Students for a Democratic Society and Student Afro-American Society was ended by the NYPD in the same building. The NYPD reportedly used zip ties to arrest the protestors and escorted them to waiting vans, before clearing the encampment. According to AP, “Those detained include the daughter of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who a day earlier had questioned Shafik about the school's treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters.” 

Photo credit: Democracy Now!
A protester clashes with police at Columbia University (Photo credit: AP)

On Monday, Columbia University announced that its school-wide commencement ceremony would be canceled after weeks of protests and arrests. “We have decided to make the centerpiece of our Commencement activities our class days and school-level ceremonies, where students are honored individually alongside their peers, rather than the University-wide ceremony,” the university announced in a statement on Monday. This announcement was particularly painful for the class of 2024, who also experienced their senior year of high school online and did not have a traditional graduation ceremony. Students expressed their disappointment with the decision, saying it has only further demoralized the student body. Tazia Mohammad, a Columbia freshman, says of President Shafik, “it’s hypocritical to say you’re acting for the graduating class and then cancel their commencement. It’s just silly.” 

These protests have also sparked other protests and encampments nationwide. On April 23rd, 25 students at Cal Poly Humboldt were arrested after a weeklong occupation of the administration building. The damage from the protests is estimated at over $1 million. At the University of Southern California, a two week-long encampment in Alumni Park was broken up by the police, resulting in 93 arrests. The protesters returned shortly after. The second time it was cleared, LAPD reported that no arrests were made. USC announced the decision to cancel Muslim commencement speaker and valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech, due to “substantial risks relating to security and disruption at the commencement.” Tabassum criticized this decision in a statement, saying, “because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement, there remain serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety.” 

Campus protests are sweeping the nation at a rapid pace, with arrests at over 50 universities across America. Through the commotion, many university administrators are working to come to agreements with students. Despite these negotiations, tensions remain high, and many students’ graduation has been jeopardized for the second time.