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At Cornell graduation, protests continue

Cornell University’s graduation ceremonies Saturday were disrupted by walkouts and chanting from pro-Palestinian graduating students.

The demonstrations come at the end of a school year marked by protests across campus.

Some students stood holding Palestinian flags and banners during provost and soon-to-be Cornell University President Michael Kotlikoff’s address to students.

At least one student raised an Israeli flag in response. Some booed during the demonstration.

Shortly after, protesting students walked out of President Martha Pollack’s commencement speech carrying their banners and chanting.

Among the chants was the cry, “Any person, any study, Cornell trustees’ hands are bloody,” referencing demonstrators’ calls for Cornell trustees to vote to divest from weapons manufacturers.

Around a dozen protesters walked out of the first ceremony.

Some students decorated their caps with the Palestinian flag or draped keffiyehs, black and white scarves that have become a symbol of solidarity with Palestinians, across their gowns. Many of these students did not participate in the demonstration and stayed throughout the ceremony.

A year of protests

A group of climate activists also protested outside Cornell’s graduation events to criticize the university’s actions and messaging related to climate change.

Standing outside the stadium where graduates entered in caps and gowns, the protestors called on the university to take more ambitious action to tackle climate change and publicly report campus emissions. They drew attention to a new report from Cornell on Fire, the group that organized the demonstration, that highlights concerns over how the university has reported its greenhouse gas emissions and plans to curb its climate impacts.

Cornell on Fire member Leila Wilmers said Cornell needs to act on climate change and declare a climate emergency, in part because of the danger it presents to their students.

“We're here today specifically, because it's graduation, and we feel that our message is about the future of graduates and the future of young people especially.”

Climate activists staged a demonstration outside of graduation
Aurora Berry
Climate activists staged a demonstration outside of graduation.

Pro-Palestinian graduating students also walked out of commencement ceremonies at Harvard, Duke and other universities.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have happened almost weekly on Cornell’s campus since the semester began. Two dozen protesters were arrested during a sit-in in March. Several students were suspended in connection to an encampment on campus.

Pollack’s Response

After demonstrators left the ceremony, President Martha Pollack continued her speech.

She told the crowd the university has wrestled with balancing freedom of expression and creating an inclusive community on campus.

“When and how should one person's right to freely express their opinions, to advocate, argue and protest yield to another's right to go peacefully about their work and to feel a sense of belonging?”

Pollack said higher educational institutions are facing “gale-force political winds.”

“Universities are being criticized for doing too much to make our communities more welcoming and diverse, or for not doing enough. 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,” she said.

President Martha Pollack spoke on the challenges universities across the country face in the of the war in Gaza.
Aurora Berry
President Martha Pollack spoke on the challenges universities across the country face in response to the war in Gaza.

Universities across the country, including Cornell, have come under fire for the way the war in Gaza and subsequent protests have been handled.

In March, Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Rep. Jason Smith sent a letter to Pollack critiquing her response to protestson campus. In an earlier letter, he questioned whether the university should keep its tax-exempt status.

In her speech, Pollack said the university has tried to address the tensions between Cornell’s values by creating guidelines for protest and expression.

“We put into place policies that, however unpopular, are content neutral and designed to protect the health and safety of our community and ensure that our teaching and learning can proceed without undue disruption,” Pollack said.

Some faculty members and students have criticized the university’s new guidelines for expression, saying they disproportionately chill speech from student and faculty members from marginalized communities.

Pollack recently announced she will retire this June. She said the decision was unrelated to external pressures.

More than 8,000 students graduated from Cornell this semester.