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Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hundreds of students in graduation robes walked out of the Harvard commencement on Thursday chanting “Free, Free Palestine” after weeks of protests on campus and a day after the school announced that 13 Harvard students who participated in a protest encampment would not be able to receive diplomas alongside their classmates.

Some students chanted “Let them walk, let them walk” during Thursday’s commencement, referring to allowing those 13 students to get their diplomas along with fellow graduates.

Student speaker Shruthi Kumar said “this semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” she said to cheers and applause.

She said she had to recognize “the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 who will not graduate today,” generating cheers and clapping from graduates. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.”

Over 1,500 students had petitioned, and nearly 500 staff and faculty had spoken up, all over the sanctions, she said.

“This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principles,” she said. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard do you hear us?”

Those in the encampment had called for a cease-fire in Gaza and for Harvard to divest from companies that support the war.

Commencement speaker Maria Ressa, a journalist and advocate for freedom of the press, told the graduates that “you don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in. Because that defines who you are.”

“The campus protests are testing everyone in America. Protests are healthy. They shouldn’t be violent. They shouldn’t be silenced,” she said.

Alaha Nasari, who graduated with a degree in the history of science and global health, said she and other students opted to walk out of the ceremonies when interim President Alan Garber took to the stage.

“The part that really got me was when I saw faculty from the stage walk down and walk alongside students. I think that the lack of faculty support has been one of the most disheartening aspects of being a student protester,” she said.

Also on Thursday, the leaders of Northwestern University and Rutgers University are expected to testify at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about concessions they gave to pro-Palestinian protesters to end demonstrations on their campus. The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, also was scheduled to appear at the latest in a series of hearings looking into how colleges have responded to the protests and allegations of antisemitism.

The decision by Harvard’s top governing board follows a recommendation Monday by faculty members to allow the 13 to receive their degrees despite their participation in the encampment.

However, Harvard’s governing board said that each of the 13 were found to have violated the university’s policies by their conduct during the encampment protest.

“In coming to this determination, we note that the express provisions of the Harvard College Student Handbook state that students who are not in good standing are not eligible for degrees,” the Harvard Corporation said in a written statement.

The statement left open the possibility of an appeals process, saying the corporation and supports the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ intention to provide an expedited review of requests for appeal.

“We care deeply about every member of our community — students, faculty, staff, researchers, and alumni — and we have chosen a path forward that accords with our responsibilities and reaffirms a process for our students to receive prompt and fair review,” the statement added.

Supporters of the students at Harvard said the decision not to allow them to receive degrees at commencement violated a May 14 agreement between Garber and the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition that would have allowed the students to graduate.

Protesters against the war between Israel and Hamas voluntarily dismantled their tents after they said university officials agreed to discuss their questions about the endowment, bringing a peaceful end to the kinds of demonstrations that were broken up by police on other campuses.

The group issued a statement late Wednesday saying the decision jeopardizes the post-graduation lives of the 13 students.

“By rejecting a democratic faculty vote, the Corporation has proved itself to be a wholly illegitimate body, and Garber an illegitimate president, accountable to no one at the university,” the group said.

There was a noticeable presence of police officers around the campus Thursday mixing with soon-to-be-graduates, their family members and sidewalk flower sellers.

A small plane circled above, trailing an Israeli and U.S. flag. A truck was parked outside the campus with an electronic billboard with the names and images of some of the pro-Palestinian protesters under the banner: “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

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