How US universities are preparing for graduation ceremonies amid pro-Palestinian protests – Firstpost

Students in the US are demanding that their universities withdraw investments from companies that profit from the Gaza war. AP

In recent weeks, campuses across the United States have become hotbeds of activism. Pro-Palestinian and anti-war protests have escalated at several universities amid the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

The demonstrations, which have now affected nearly 140 institutions in 45 states plus Washington, DC, show that they can disrupt graduation ceremonies.

We explain what impact the protests are expected to have on the commencement ceremonies. We also highlight how a constructive approach to the protesters’ demands has helped some universities prepare for a much smoother ceremony.

Major protests prior to graduation ceremonies

According to the BBC, four universities affected by the protests will hold their graduation ceremonies this weekend. Many others, including Columbia University, have planned ceremonies in May and June.

The protests, characterized by tent camps and noisy disruptions, have led to significant security concerns for universities. These institutions are now implementing strict security measures reminiscent of those used during large-scale sporting events.

Universities are strengthening their security facilities

Indiana University and the University of Michigan serve as prime examples of campuses on high alert, with both schools enhancing their security protocols to combat potential disruptions during their commencement ceremonies.

At Indiana University, where police have seen police clear camps of protesters twice, the government has called for increased vigilance. The IU Divest and Palestine Solidarity Committee has spoken out, encouraging graduates to don keffiyehs – a symbol of Palestinian nationalism – in addition to their caps and gowns and walk out during commencement speeches to show their solidarity.

Expecting more than 8,000 graduates and 63,000 spectators, the University of Michigan will host its ceremonies in the expansive Michigan Stadium, also known as “The Big House.” Here, attendees will undergo security screenings and any disruptive demonstrators will be removed. This follows an incident in March where a university event was abruptly ended by protesters drowning out speakers, which has since led to the creation of a policy that could result in stiff penalties for disruptors, including expulsion.

Dozens of tents were set up as part of a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Thursday, May 2, 2024. File image/AP

Farther east, Northeastern University in Boston, which faced nearly a hundred arrests after recent protests, is taking no chances. Their commencement will take place at Fenway Park, allowing for better crowd control and security oversight. The historic ballpark will implement strict access controls, including metal detectors, and restrictions on items such as signs, banners and large bags to ensure a focused celebration of student achievement.

Volunteers are trained at various universities to limit disruptions. Normally, their only job would be to escort and assist guests arriving at the graduation ceremony location.

Concerns about destroying freedom of expression, peaceful protests

Such preparations have led to greater controversies. More than 300 University of Michigan faculty, staff and alumni have signed a letter protesting the training the school’s Student Life department provides to early-career volunteers to manage disruptions.

“I’m really concerned about asking a staff member to engage in any kind of police behavior … even gently reminding people when they can speak and how they can speak,” said Anne Elias, training manager for Library Services the University.

As universities strengthen their defenses against disruptions, they will also have to face the delicate balance between upholding freedom of expression and maintaining the sanctity of graduation ceremonies.

The protests were largely peaceful, and some university officials faced widespread criticism for calling in riot police to violently suppress the protests. The use of batons, flash grenades and rubber bullets has also been criticized by civil rights groups.

At some universities the picture is different

The situation is somewhat different at universities that have taken a more moderate approach to protesters. According to Reuters, schools that have allowed encampments to remain on campus or considered divestment demands, thus avoiding more explosive confrontations with protesters, are under less pressure before graduation.

On Thursday, University of Minnesota interim President Jeff Ettinger said protesters have agreed to disband their encampment. This decision was made in exchange for an opportunity to discuss divestiture with the Board of Regents. In addition, the university has promised that no disciplinary action will be taken against the protesters.

The bigger picture

These protests highlight the complex challenges facing educational institutions today, which must serve as arenas for free expression while protecting celebratory events such as graduation ceremonies. The experiences of these universities reflect a broader social struggle to reconcile freedom of expression with public safety and institutional order.

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