Harvard Students Walk Out of Commencement in Mass Protest Over Suspensions

By: Georgia | Published: May 24, 2024

Hundreds of attendees at the Harvard College graduation ceremony staged a walkout in protest against the disqualification of 13 students who had been involved in an earlier encampment. 

This group was said to be involved in activities deemed inappropriate by the university, leading to their exclusion from the graduation ceremony.

Protests Resume at UCLA

On the same day, administrators and police at UCLA dealt with the resurgence of protestors at the center of their campus. 

Diverse group of students ascending the outdoor staircase at UCLA, flanked by university banners

Source: UCLA/Facebook

This parallel event illustrated a day marked by student activism at major universities, reflecting broader unrest within the academic community.


Harvard's Governing Board Rejects Faculty Vote

Harvard’s governing authority overruled a decision made by faculty members who had initially voted to allow the 13 students to participate in the commencement ceremonies. 

Aerial shot of Harvard University showcasing the historic buildings and bustling street activity

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This decision by the board intensified the atmosphere at the graduation, prompting the walkout.

Chants and Protests During Harvard Commencement

During the Harvard College commencement ceremony, a walkout occurred just before 11 a.m. on Thursday. 

A Harvard University building decorated with large red banners displaying the 'Veritas' shield, with students and faculty milling about

Source: Harvard University/Facebook

Participants in the walkout were heard chanting “Let them walk” among other slogans, during an approximately 10-minute demonstration, which was documented in videos from the event.

Harvard Interim President Comments on Protest

Interim President Alan M. Garber addressed the situation during his speech at the commencement.

Workers setting up chairs and stages for a commencement ceremony at Harvard, with students and visitors walking around the campus

Source: Harvard/X

He said, “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,” acknowledging the right of the students to protest, according to Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.

Moment of Silence at Harvard

In the midst of the commencement, Garber called for a moment of silence, offering “sympathy and empathy” towards those affected by the broader issues reflected in the protest.

Overhead view of Harvard's commencement ceremony in progress, with students and guests gathered under large red banners and trees

Source: Harvard University/Facebook

This moment signaled a somber recognition of the underlying tensions.


Misunderstandings and Expectations Among Harvard Protestors

Protestors expressed disappointment, believing that an agreement would have allowed them to graduate. 

A campsite with colorful tents and banners on a university campus, symbolizing student activism

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This misunderstanding added to the sense of injustice felt by those who participated in the walkout.


Scale of the Harvard Walkout

A spokesperson from Harvard later stated that “several hundred” individuals took part in the commencement walkout.

A prominent university building with a distinctive red brick design and ornate architectural details under a clear blue sky

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This demonstrates the significant support for the students who were disqualified from graduating.


Personal Impact of the Disqualification

“The inability to graduate is consequential for students and their families,” Harvard stated, acknowledging the serious implications of their decision not to allow certain students to graduate. 

Diverse group of university graduates celebrating, holding their caps in the air, surrounded by trees and banners during commencement

Source: Harvard/X

This situation overshadowed what is traditionally a celebratory occasion for many.


Commencement Speaker Addresses Graduates

During the ceremony, commencement speaker Maria Ressa spoke to the graduates about the importance of being tested and fighting for what they believe in. 

A smiling commencement speaker at a university ceremony, standing at a podium, addressing the audience

Source: Harvard University/Facebook

She emphasized that such challenges define one’s character.


Blocked Student Speaks Out

Asmer Asrar Safi, one of the students blocked from graduating, commented on the situation.

Close-up of a creatively decorated graduation cap held up by a graduate, featuring colorful designs and inspirational words

Source: Niles Singer/Harvard Content Creator/Facebook

He said, “While we will not be returning to this school, we hope that our friends carry the liberatory legacy of the encampment alive, and strive even harder for divestment,” indicating a resolution to continue their advocacy despite the setback.


Reflections on University Responses to Protests

The incidents at Harvard and UCLA mirrored a broader discussion about how universities handle protests and address student grievances. 

A dense crowd of graduates in red and black robes, seen from above, celebrating among green trees

Source: Harvard University/Facebook

This was also a topic of discussion among university leaders at other institutions during a hearing with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, focusing on negotiation over force in managing demonstrations.