Matthew Kiviat/Sun News Editor

Pro-Palestine graduates turn away from the main commencement stage, holding banners towards the audience.

May 26, 2024

Graduates Stage Pro-Palestine Commencement Walkouts

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President Martha Pollack’s final commencement speeches were interrupted by pro-Palestine demonstrations and walkouts staged by the Coalition for Mutual Liberation.

After entering Schoellkopf Field on Saturday, demonstrating graduates at each ceremony held up banners with messages including “Divest from genocide” and “Cornell profits from genocide.” Some graduates approached the podium with banners as Pollack began to speak. Many of the demonstrators wore graduation caps decorated with the Palestine flag.

A protester holds up a banner reading “Cornell profits from genocide.” (Matthew Kiviat/Sun News Editor)

Despite initial disruptions, Pollack conferred degrees to over 8,000 graduates across two ceremonies on Saturday and completed speeches in both sessions. Demonstrators’ interruptions to Pollack’s speech were booed by some audience members.

Walkouts at both ceremonies were organized by CML, a pro-Palestine coalition of over 40 on and off-campus organizations. CML is also collecting signatures from members of the Class of 2024 pledging not to donate to the University until it “no longer funds endless violence, starting with the Palestinian genocide.”

A group of pro-Palestine graduates walks out of commencement. (Matthew Kiviat/Sun News Editor)

An alternative commencement program was also handed out to attendees, listing 18 to 20-year-old Palestinianians who have died in the Israel-Hamas war to honor those “who will never graduate.” The program gave “honorary degrees” in “hypocrisy” to Ezra Cornell, “violent innovation” to Cornell’s partners and “funding genocide” to the Cornell Board of Trustees. The program also promoted Operation Olive Branch, a spreadsheet with links to Palestinian fundraisers and organizations.

The University declined to comment on the disruptions.

The walkout follows CML staging an encampment on the Arts Quad for two-and-a-half weeks, throughout which six students were issued temporary suspensions. Pollack maintained that divestment was unfeasible in a meeting with organizers, according to a CML Instagram post.

However, after CML voluntarily took down the encampment on May 13, Pollack wrote in a May 14 University statement that she agreed with CML’s request for more educational opportunities about the history and politics that led to warfare in the Middle East, which she wrote aligns with requests from other students and student group.

Pollack wrote that she did not condone the encampment but was grateful that it remained non-violent and that participants limited disruptions. She also condemned the terms encampment participants said they have been labeled including “terrorist” and “kapo,” which refers to a Nazi concentration camp prisoner who was given privileges in return for supervising other prisoners or completing administrative work.

Pollack issued a pause on additional suspensions and disciplinary referrals and said that existing cases would be “promptly and carefully” reviewed. A representative from CML confirmed on May 15 that four out of six of the suspensions were dropped after participants agreed to requirements about their further expressive activity.

Cornell is not the only college seeing graduation disruptions. During Harvard University’s commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 23, over a thousand Pro-Palestine demonstrators walked out of the conferral of degrees in support of 13 undergraduates denied diplomas.

Graduates who remained in Schoellkopf Field listened to Pollack speak about the importance of clear values in “casting light on complex situations and guiding your decisions when the way forward is anything but obvious,” especially amid campus challenges.

Pollack identified six core values of Cornellians, including “purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, a community of belonging, exploration across boundaries, changing lives through public engagement and respect for the natural environment.”

“That statement of core values has been vital to me as we navigated the intensity and complexity of these past years,” Pollack said. “From a global pandemic to a national racial reckoning, through an increasingly divisive political culture and the reverberating impacts of an ongoing war.”

However, Pollack reminded graduates that although values can guide decision-making, it is up to the individual to balance values.

Pollack said that over the past few years, and particularly the past seven months, balancing “free and open inquiry and expression and being a community of belonging,” came to a head at Cornell and at colleges across the nation. 

“Part of our responsibility as a university is … finding ways to honor both [values] even when we cannot do so absolutely,” Pollack said. “Deploying all the tools available to us as scholars to find the compromises and solutions that are — while imperfect — the best available.”

A graduate holds an Israel flag next to another graduate holding a pro-Palestine banner at the second commencement ceremony. (Matthew Kiviat/Sun News Editor)

Pollack pointed to the range of complaints regarding the administrative response to expressive activity at Cornell and other universities across the country. 

“Universities are being criticized for doing too much to make our communities more welcoming and diverse, or for not doing enough,” Pollack said. “For doing too little to protect speech or too little to curtail it. Or just as often, for protecting or curtailing the wrong kinds of speech.” 

Though the University’s Interim Expressive Activity Policy has seen heavy criticism, Pollack defended the establishment of content-neutral policies, emphasizing that they were “designed to protect the health and safety of our community and ensure that our teaching and learning can proceed without undue disruption.”

“If we curtail speech on the basis of its content, then we head down a dangerous path of handing over to others the right to decide what we can and cannot say, hear or know,” Pollack said. “This is something that as an institution dedicated to discovering, pursuing and disseminating knowledge, we can never accept.” 

Pollack concluded her speech by encouraging graduates to use their education to develop solutions to societal issues. 

“Higher education — with its culture that demands evidence and reasoned argument, and a commitment to truth — is a bulwark against the threats of authoritarianism faced by our nation and our world,” Pollack said.

Update, 5/30, 2:53 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that the University declined to comment.