College graduation disrupted by anti-war protests has occurred in the past

Amid ongoing protests disrupting campus activities, college leaders nationwide face a tough decision as they work to organize graduation ceremonies: Should they proceed or cancel?

It’s a weighty choice that school officials don’t take lightly, even though they may have grappled with similar dilemmas in the past. Instances like natural disasters, public health emergencies, and security concerns occasionally prompt colleges to consider altering or scrapping commencement events as a precautionary measure. 

The threshold is high, yet campus demonstrations related to the Israel-Hamas conflict seem to be meeting it – particularly at certain institutions like Columbia University in New York. Columbia, a focal point of student activism advocating for the severance of economic links with Israel, recently called off its main graduation gathering scheduled for mid-May. The university will instead hold smaller, decentralized ceremonies at its schools.

“These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community,” Columbia administrators stated in an update released on Monday. 

Real-time updates on college protests:Columbia axes primary commencement; universities crack down on encampments

Following numerous arrests and the cancellation of the valedictorian speech at the Los Angeles campus, the University of Southern California made a similar decision last month. Emory University in Atlanta also opted to relocate its graduation celebrations.

Commencement ceremonies facing disruption isn’t unprecedented. Throughout American history, social upheaval, including large-scale anti-war protests, has interfered with the traditional ceremonies that mark the culmination of college studies for students and their families. Experts note that when campus-related unrest impedes colleges from holding end-of-year festivities, it can signal a significant political and cultural moment in society.

However, labeling the recent turmoil as “unprecedented” overlooks the historical recurrence of such incidents, according to Marybeth Gasman, a Rutgers University professor specializing in U.S. higher education history.

Resonating Effects of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic served as the most recent disruptor of college graduations. As the virus spread, social distancing protocols became prevalent, prompting numerous schools to shelve their ceremonies to prevent widespread infections. Similarly, in the early 20th century during the era of limited higher education accessibility in the U.S., the Spanish flu pandemic similarly disrupted graduation events and college sports activities. 

For many seniors at institutions like Columbia and USC alongside others contemplating event cancellations, the opportunity to partake in the traditional cap and gown ceremony was missed. Instead, these students bid farewell to their high school years through drive-through or online ceremonies. While the pandemic significantly altered the conventional college experience for many American students, the Class of 2024 faced unique challenges amidst a rare global pandemic and the onset of a new conflict in the Middle East, both contributing to profound cultural disruptions. 

Commencement ceremonies have also faced disruptions from natural disasters over the years. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes dumped 19 inches of rain on central Pennsylvania, forcing Penn State Harrisburg to cancel its ceremony that year due to catastrophic flooding. Similarly, hurricanes Irma and Harvey in 2017 had similar impacts on certain student populations.

Parallels to Past Anti-War Movements

Historically, public responses to U.S. engagements in armed conflicts have impeded college graduation events, harkening back to World War I and World War II. Connections have been drawn between contemporary anti-war sentiments and the earlier opposition toward the Vietnam War and South African apartheid. 

In 1968, student protests at Columbia University, an Ivy League institution, took center stage in Manhattan to contest the university’s affiliations with a war-connected think tank and proposed segregated gym facilities. These demonstrations resulted in mass arrests, resembling recent events at the same campus. 

Unraveling the Columbia situation:Alumni influence and law enforcement engagement laid the groundwork for subsequent arrests

Ultimately, administrators yielded to the students’ demands in 1968, and Columbia managed to hold its commencement, albeit off-campus. Instead of the university president delivering the keynote, a history professor stepped in to address the gathering

This episode was followed by the tragic Kent State shootings in May 1970, where National Guardsmen fatally shot four students at the Ohio-based university amid protests against the Vietnam War. The incident left nine others wounded, including a paralyzed freshman resulting from the gunfire. 

Remembering the Kent State shootings:Despite paralysis, he remains devoted to Kent State, encouraging others to be ‘upstanding citizens’

These events catalyzed a broad student strike that shuttered numerous colleges and intensified existing public aversion toward the war. 

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