CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (WHDH) - Hundreds of Harvard graduates walked out of the university’s commencement ceremony Thursday, sending a defiant message after weeks of protests and a decision by the Harvard Corporation not to give degrees to 13 seniors who participated in the recent pro-Palestinian encampment in Harvard Yard.

Commencement participants gathered early Thursday morning and formal ceremonies began near 9:30 a.m. The walkout happened near 11 a.m. while Interim President Alan Garber was conferring degrees.

Once they took to the streets, graduating students in caps and gowns held signs and Palestinian flags while chanting.

Asked if they felt their message was being heard, Harvard graduate Noah Sepharia said “I think so.”

“Multiple speakers came up for speeches and brought up how unfair it is that the university decided the day before to prohibit graduating seniors from graduating,” Sepharia said. “It was a corporation decision, not a faculty decision, and that was expressed. Now we have this huge crowd walking out because we support a ceasefire and a free Palestine.”

Students made their way down Massachusetts Avenue to the Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, effectively shutting down Massachusetts Avenue while they marched. 

Students were later met with pro-Israel demonstrators who also held signs and flags and chanted while the pro-Palestinian group left the church.

“For the students and their families who are graduating, who are either themselves Jewish or Israeli, or simply allies of Israel and the Jewish people, I felt that they shouldn’t walk on their graduation without seeing an Israeli flag and we’ve felt so alone as a community for the past six months,” said Harvard PHD student Deborah Shalshelet. 

Shalshelet, who is also Jewish, said she supported the Harvard Corporation’s decision. 

“I was surprised and also pleased that they stood by Harvard policies and guidelines,” she said. “If any student had done what they did — harass students, prevent Jewish students from walking through certain parts of the yard, breaking the locks on some of the gates and allowing over 150 anti-Israel antagonists to come into the yard — what are we supposed to do? Allow those types of behaviors to go completely undisciplined?”

Protesters had dispersed by 12:30 p.m.

Harvard interim president addresses possible commencement protests in opening remarks

Before the walkout, as students, family members, friends and faculty filtered onto the Harvard campus Thursday morning, protesters already gathered

Some held pro-Palestinian signs. Another group held a sign reading “Harvard against antisemitism.” Overhead, a plane towed a sign that said “Jewish lives matter.”

As commencement got underway, Garber congratulated graduates and addressed the possibility of protests.

“As our ceremony proceeds, some among us may choose to take the liberty of expressing themselves to draw attention to events unfolding in the wider world,” he said. “It is their right to do so. But it is their responsibility to do so with our community—and this occasion—in mind.”

“That said, I acknowledge that this moment of joy for us coincides with moments for others that we cannot comprehend—moments of fear and dread, grief and anguish, suffering and pain,” Garber continued before calling for a minute of silence.

As the ceremony continued, at least one student speaker condemned the university for its handling of recent protests and the decision to withhold degrees for some students, saying officials violated students’ free speech.

“The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken,” said Shruthi Kumar. “Harvard, do you hear us?”

“I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus,” Kumar said.

Protest follows decision not to give degrees to some seniors

The Harvard Corporation, which serves as Harvard’s governing body, announced it voted to confer 1,539 degrees this year. In doing so, the corporation overruled a vote from faculty members who recommended degrees to the additional group of seniors who participated in the pro-Palestinian encampment. Though the 13 seniors were allowed to participate in the commencement ceremony, they will not receive their diplomas for the time being.

“We respect each faculty’s responsibility to determine appropriate discipline for its students,” the corporation said in a statement. “Monday’s faculty vote did not, however, revisit these disciplinary rulings, did not purport to engage in the individualized assessment of each case that would ordinarily be required to do so, and, most importantly, did not claim to restore the students to good standing.”

The Harvard pro-Palestinian encampment formed as part of a wave of demonstrations on campuses across the country beginning in April. 

From Boston to Los Angeles, student demonstrators occupied campus spaces and at times clashed with counter-protesters and police as they called on university and college officials to divest from companies doing business with Israel. 

While Harvard and the encampment on its campus avoided the kind of clashes seen elsewhere, university officials were critical of the demonstration and repeatedly warned demonstrators they would face consequences. 

Harvard students voluntarily ended their encampment on May 14, taking down the last such encampment in the Boston area. At the time, protest organizers said the university promised leniency for more than 60 students facing disciplinary action for their involvement.

Scheduled to take place less than 10 days after the encampment ended, Thursday’s commencement followed a flurry of activity in recent days.

On Monday, the Harvard Corporation said, the faculties at Harvard’s schools received a list of degree candidates from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar, who is tasked with certifying that students have met requirements and are in good standing to get a Harvard degree.

The corporation said the faculties amended the list, adding 13 seniors who Harvard’s disciplinary board previously determined violated the university’s policies by participating in the encampment.

“Because the students included as the result of Monday’s amendment are not in good standing, we cannot responsibly vote to award them degrees at this time,” the corporation said in its statement, explaining its decision to reject the faculties’ recommendation.

The corporation said it understands “that the inability to graduate is consequential for students and their families” and said it fully supports the faculty’s plan to provide expedited review of student disciplinary cases.

The corporation continued, saying it will promptly consider conferring degrees “if, following the completion of all FAS processes, a student becomes eligible to receive a degree.”

The Associated Press on Thursday reported supporters of students demonstrators said the Harvard Corporation’s decision violated an agreement between university officials and protest organizers to end their encampment.

In a statement to the AP, the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition said the corporation, with its vote, “has proved itself to be a wholly illegitimate body and Garber an illegitimate president, accountable to no one at the university.”

“Today’s actions have plunged the university even further into a crisis of legitimacy and governance, which will have major repercussions for Harvard in the coming months and years,” the statement continued, as reported by the AP.

The pro-Palestinian encampment at Harvard and the events since the encampment ended marked the latest moment of tension in a school year where the Harvard community has seen protests, criticism, and concerns raised about discrimination and hate in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. 

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned in January amid allegations of plagiarism and backlash over her testimony at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses. 

She was replaced by Garber, who is set to continue serving as interim president while Harvard seeks to find a permanent replacement. 

Asked for comment on Thursday after the commencement walkout, a Harvard spokesperson referred back to Garber’s opening remarks in the ceremony.

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