Harvard Braces for Graduation Protests, a Fitting End to a Stormy Year


Harvard is bracing for protests during its commencement Thursday, after one of the most turbulent years in the university’s history.

Disruptions were made more likely after the Harvard Corporation, the governing board, barred for now the graduation of 13 students because of their role in pro-Palestinian protests on campus. The students, and many faculty supporters, believed they had come to an agreement with the administration that ended their encampment, and that all but guaranteed the lifting of disciplinary proceedings. The university denied that it was promising the outcome of disciplinary proceedings.

The controversy caps a year in which Harvard became central to a national debate over how universities have handled student protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

The turmoil began on Oct. 7, as more than 30 student organizations signed onto an open letter holding Israel responsible for the violence of the Hamas attacks in Israel, in which more than 1,200 people were killed and some 250 kidnapped.

The backlash against the letter, and Harvard’s slow response to denounce the attacks as terrorism, led to strife on campus. Pro-Palestinian students were doxxed, their names and faces circulated on trucks around campus; Jewish students were attacked with antisemitic slurs on social media; and wealthy donors pulled their money.

By January, Harvard’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, was forced to resign, after mounting charges of plagiarism in her academic work and her disastrous testimony before a congressional committee, in which she failed to denounce calls for the genocide of Jews as violating Harvard’s code of conduct.

Even the antisemitism task force, met with controversy over the choice of its co-chair, Derek J. Penslar, a Harvard professor of Jewish history, who had said that the degree of antisemitism on campus was exaggerated.

The latest controversy over student discipline began on Friday, after Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, a protest group, said that some seniors would not be allowed to graduate. The announcement caused a furor, as supporters of the students said that they were being punished for peaceful protest. Although Harvard did not provide details of what the students had done wrong, official statements indicated that protesters had cut a gate lock and harassed and intimidated staff members.

Some faculty supporters then engaged in a bureaucratic duel over the students’ fates.

Every year, on the Monday before commencement, the registrar of the college sends a list of all the students who have met the requirements to graduate and are in good standing to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The faculty meeting is usually pro forma. Faculty members are asked whether they are in favor of sending the list to the corporation for degree conferral and traditionally, they do.

This year, however, a group of faculty supporters of the student protesters came to the meeting armed with an amendment to add back the 13 students, including two Rhodes scholars, to the registrar’s list. About 115 faculty were present at the Monday meeting, out of nearly 900 eligible faculty. Some 500 faculty and staff signed a letter supporting the students.

The amendment, however, was not binding, Harvard officials said, because it did not overturn the disciplinary rulings or move the students into good standing.

So on Wednesday, the corporation affirmed that the 13 students were barred from graduating.

Under the rules, the students can appeal and may be able to return to good standing. The corporation said that if they were, the university would confer their degrees promptly, as opposed to waiting for the next formal graduation period, and students like the Rhodes scholars would not lose their scholarships.

“We understand that the inability to graduate is consequential for students and their families,” the corporation said. “We fully support the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ stated intention to provide expedited review, at this time, of eligible requests for reconsideration or appeal.”

The commencement speaker is Maria Ressa, a journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whom Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, said “embodies Veritas.”

For its part, on Wednesday night, graduation eve, Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine posted its own message: “See you at commencement.”

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