In the wake of a canceled Commencement, Columbia Class Days were rife with protest. Meanwhile, a non-affiliated People’s Graduation took place.

Editor’s warning: Mentions of sexual violence

Throughout the week of May 12, Columbia held various formal and informal celebrations to celebrate student graduations. After the school-wide Commencement ceremony was canceled on May 15 due to “security concerns,” Class Days were moved off campus, students held an official Convocation on campus, and community members led a People’s Graduation in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 

Class Days 

In the aftermath of campus protests, various graduating seniors expressed support for Palestine or Israel as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas during Class Day. Columbia College valedictorian Kathy Fang held a sign reading “Divest” while walking across the stage, while other graduates across colleges wore keffiyehs, held signs and Palestinian flags, and decorated their caps with Palestinian imagery. Some Barnard graduates also wore red poppies “each with the name of a martyred Palestinian child written inside to honor the lives lost in the genocide,” according to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). 

One School of Social Work graduate wore zip ties and ripped up their diploma in protest. Outside of the Teachers College ceremony, a U-Haul art installation was parked to “honor… the martyrs of Gaza’s graduating class of 2024, reflecting [students’] refusal[s] to celebrate graduation when there are no universities left in Gaza’s 

During Class Days, various student speakers included pro-Palestine rhetoric and chants in their speeches. Mailman School of Public Health speaker Saham David Ahmed Ali spoke on Palestine and the University’s response. She asked, “Do they not see the decimation of the healthcare system… the mass graves outside of Al-Shifa Hospital while we were in classrooms learning about investigative methods, about policy and human rights?” As Ali’s microphone cut out, the audience chanted, “Let her speak.” As her microphone came on again, Ali declared various CUAD-backed demands and called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. 

During the Barnard Class Day, the president of Barnard’s Student Government Association (SGA), Mariame Sissoko, led the crowd in singing “We shall not be moved,” a popular protest song prevalent throughout pro-Palestine campus protests. Sissoko listed names of Palestinian children who have been killed, while some voices from the crowd yelled “Free the hostages” and “Bring them home.”

After Barnard’s Class Day, SJP stated via Instagram that they “have received multiple reports of Zionist parents of Barnard students screaming explicit rape threats and death threats at a Barnard student who spoke about Palestinian children killed in the genocide.” The post also included a Sidechat post, which claimed that Zionist individuals booed at graduates holding Palestinian flags. Meanwhile, other parents draped Palestinian flags and signs from the balcony of Radio City Music Hall, Barnard’s Class Day venue, reading “Divest” and “Parents for Palestine.” 

The People’s Graduation  

On May 16, city-wide university faculty members organized a People’s Graduation at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate “students who have been excluded from campus for peacefully protesting Israel’s genocide in Gaza,” according to an Instagram post announcing the event. This ceremony was open to students at Columbia, Barnard, NYU, the New School, and CUNY colleges, as well as “anyone else who wants to be a part of it,” according to the post. A full recording of the event is available on Vimeo. 

A pamphlet distributed at the event included a statement from Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), which has organized pro-Palestine protests on campus over the past several months. The statement acknowledged the importance of the date of May 15, the day originally scheduled for Commencement. It stated that this day is also the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, “a day chosen to memorialize now seventy-six years of displacement, ethnic hatred, and settler violence suffered by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli colonists.” 

CUAD’s statement also addressed the coalition’s organizing actions, including the installation of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and the occupation of Hamilton Hall, since renamed Hind Hall’s by pro-Palestine protesters. The statement emphasized CUAD’s continued calls for divestment “from companies complicit in genocide and occupation in Palestine.” 

CUAD concluded by emphasizing that “the people stand with [them].” They claimed, “The vast majority of students in all schools support divestment,” specifically referring to Columbia College, Barnard, and School of Social Work divestment referendum results, where students voted in support of divesting from Israel. The statement also claimed that the Climate School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Teachers College, and Columbia Law School have passed resolutions supporting divestment. “These resolutions are only the beginning,” the statement read. “We cannot allow our administrative officers to ignore our will and line their pockets. We cannot be distracted by the lies they spread, or swayed by the crumbs they offer. We must continue to stand in solidarity, with the Palestinian people and with each other.” 

At the People’s Graduation, a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interfaith prayer celebration was led by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, Reverend Herbert Daughtry, and Asad Dandia. Writer Randa Jarrar led a chant, exclaiming, “We will defeat Israel. We defeated Columbia; we defeated NYPD; we will defeat any PD. We have exposed the mayor; we have exposed Biden. We will defeat cop cities; we will defeat cop universities. We are dismantling the empire.” Writer and activist adrienne maree brown led the crowd in singing “We shall not be moved.” 

Surrounding Events 

On May 15, a student-run Convocation ceremony took place on Columbia’s Morningside campus in place of Commencement. Actor, singer, and former Columbia student Ben Platt sang at this ceremony, which was only open to graduating seniors. 

The same day, Columbia President Minouche Shafik published an op-ed piece in the Columbia Daily Spectator offering her congratulations to the Class of 2024. In the op ed, Shafik stated the decision to cancel Commencement was “one of the toughest calls in a year of many tough calls.” She wrote that she “recognize[d] the toll” of the past months and is “deeply sorry” for the “disappointment” experienced by the Columbia community.

Shafik acknowledged the role protests have played in Columbia’s history, also mentioning the “strain” that recent “divisions” and “polarization[s]” have placed on the community. She reiterated that her “top priority” is the physical safety of the community. “You may not agree with every decision taken by University leadership,” she said, “But please know that it came from a place of care and concern for the common good at Columbia.”

President Shafik also stated that the University “know[s] that virtually no one wants the police on our campus.” She announced that her summer priorities will be maintaining an opportunity for dialogue to facilitate “agreeing on and enforcing our own norms and rules to make sure everyone is safe and can pursue their academic endeavors.” 
After graduation, various recent Barnard graduates of the Class of 2024 reported they were unable to access Barnard’s campus. Bwog reached out to the College regarding these reports. In response, a Barnard spokesperson stated, “Once the spring term ends with the conclusion of all academic activities and dorm move out, only students who are here for summer study or an approved reason are able to access campus.” Barnard students are also currently restricted from accessing Columbia’s Morningside campus.

Speaker Amanda Seales at the People’s Graduation via Bwog Staff