At college graduations, UC Berkeley’s protests stand out

Graduates gather before a graduation ceremony at the University of California, Berkeley, in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, May 11, 2024. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

At the University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of soon-to-be graduates rose from their seats in protest, chanting and disrupting their commencement. At Virginia Commonwealth University, about 60 graduates in caps and gowns walked out during Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s speech. At the University of Wisconsin, a handful of graduates stood with their backs to their chancellor as she spoke.

After weeks of tumult on college campuses over pro-Palestinian protests, many administrators prepared themselves for disruptions at graduations Saturday. And although there were demonstrations — most noisily, perhaps, at UC Berkeley — ceremonies at several universities unfolded without major incident. Many students who protested did so silently.


Anticipating possible disruptions, university administrators had increased their security or taken various measures, including dismantling encampments, setting aside free speech zones, canceling student speeches and issuing admission tickets.

Some administrators also tried to reach agreements with encampment organizers. The University of Wisconsin said it had reached a deal with protesters to clear the encampment in return for a meeting to discuss the university’s investments.

Some students, too, were on edge about their big day — many missed their high school graduations four years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic and did not want to repeat the experience.

In 2020, David Emuze and his mother had watched his high school graduation “ceremony,” a parade of senior photos set to music on Zoom, from their living room in Springfield, Illinois. This time, he and his classmates at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign heard that other schools, including the University of Southern California and Columbia University, had canceled their main-stage commencements altogether because of campus unrest.

But on Saturday morning, Emuze donned his electric-blue mortarboard and orange sash, and his mother watched live from the audience as he earned his bachelor’s degree in public health. “It was a touching, peaceful, inspiring and motivational ceremony,” he said, with a note of relief in his voice.

He said the keynote speaker, Jeanne Gang, an architect and University of Illinois alum, had hit just the right note. She acknowledged that “we all know about what’s going on in the world right now,” but said it was a time to come together and celebrate achievements.

At UC Berkeley, the home of the free speech movement, the protesters made themselves heard. Greta Brown, 23, an environmental science graduate, wore cap, gown and a stole with the word “Palestine” emblazoned on it. She was among those who stood and chanted during the graduation speeches. “I felt like it was necessary,” she said, because the university had not done enough. “I just heard a lot of, like, ‘Oh, we hear you,’ and a centrist point of view.”

At the beginning of the ceremony, Chancellor Carol Christ was met with boos when she began to speak, but there were louder cheers when she mentioned the pro-Palestinian encampment nearby. “Students have been camping around Sproul Hall for almost three weeks,” Christ said. “They feel passionately about the brutality of the violence in Gaza.” She added, “I, too, am deeply troubled by the terrible tragedy.”

As the speeches continued, the disruptions escalated. Dozens of students in the stands rose with signs reading, “Divest,” and at least 10 Palestinian flags. They began to chant, and then interrupted the speech by the student body president, Sydney Roberts, who said, “This wouldn’t be Berkeley without a protest.”

Despite warnings from the vice provost, a group of students staked out a section of empty stadium seats behind the main stage, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the occupation has got to go” and “UC divest,” and attracting other students until the crowd swelled to about 500. Security guards escorted them out as the graduation drew to a close.

Not all of the protests were centered on the Middle East. At Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Micah White, 26, was one of roughly 60 students who walked out while the governor was speaking.

“The first thing that motivated me is the hypocrisy of VCU declaring themselves to be a minority-serving institution, declaring themselves to be for diversity, equity and inclusion, and bringing Youngkin in as commencement speaker,” he said.

The university’s board voted Friday against requiring students to take racial literacy classes. Youngkin, a Republican, requested to review course materials for proposed racial literacy classes.

Youngkin also supported the dismantling of an encampment on campus late last month during which 13 people, including six students, were arrested. Sareen Haddad, 19, who studies psychology at VCU, said he was knocked to the ground during the clash between protesters and police that day and that Youngkin had failed to acknowledge that the encampment was peaceful.

The ceremonies came after a week in which some colleges made arrests and cleared encampments of pro-Palestinian demonstrators. In recent days, authorities dismantled encampments at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Officers were also called in to empty an encampment at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, deploying “chemical munitions” in the process, hours before its graduation ceremony Friday evening.

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