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Pro-Palestine protesters cheer inside Harvard Epworth Church Thursday during HOOP’s “People’s Commencement.”
Pro-Palestine protesters cheer inside Harvard Epworth Church Thursday during HOOP’s “People’s Commencement.” By Frank S. Zhou
By Elyse C. Goncalves, Joyce E. Kim, and Veronica H. Paulus, Crimson Staff Writers

Organizers with Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine hosted an mock graduation ceremony during Harvard’s 373rd Commencement celebrations to honor the 13 seniors whose degrees were withheld for their involvement in the pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard.

The ceremony came after more than 1,000 students, faculty, and commencement attendees staged a walkout of Commencement as interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 conferred degrees on graduating seniors. Chanting “Let them walk,” the group marched to Epworth Church — a short distance from the Yard — to attend the “People’s Commencement.”

HOOP organizers hosted the ceremony after the Harvard College Administrative Board suspended five undergraduates and placed at least 20 more on probation for their participation in the 20-day encampment, which came to a close last Tuesday — a disciplinary crackdown that drew fierce backlash from students and faculty.

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Class Day 2024, the Harvard Corporation rejected an effort by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to add the 13 seniors back onto the list of degrees recommended for conferral.

Instead, they received certificates from “The People’s University” at the ceremony, which was attended by hundreds of graduates and their families, and featured speeches from HOOP organizers, Palestinian Harvard affiliates, and Walter Johnson, a professor of History and African and African American Studies.

HOOP Organizer and Harvard Law School graduate Lea H. Kayali opened the ceremony by thanking the attendees for their participation in the demonstration.

“As a Palestinian who has been betrayed and abandoned by the University, I cannot tell you how much it means to me that all of you walked out in solidarity with the Palestinian people and the 15 seniors who were prevented from graduating,” she said.

“Thank you for walking with us,” Kayali added. “By joining this walkout, you all took a stance against the injustice that prevented our classmates from graduating today, and more importantly took a stance against injustice happening to my people in Palestine.”

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this story.

Johnson joked his speech may be the first in history “to address a graduating class in which almost one-sixth of the members have won Rhodes scholarships,” referring to Asmer A. Safi ’23-’24 and Suhaas M. Bhat ’23-’24, two Rhodes Scholar-elects who were denied their degrees.

Johnson congratulated the seniors recognized in the ceremony and thanked student protesters for their “courage” and “determination.”

“Our University has punished you for believing in the things that we have taught you,” Johnson said, referencing the University-Wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities — a document which protects and affirms the right to protest but forbids behavior that interferes with the “normal duties and activities” of University affiliates.

Harvard administrators have repeatedly referenced the document in warnings to protesters about the University’s protest guidelines.

Rabea Eghbariah — a Palestinian human rights lawyer and Harvard Law School student — was the ceremony’s closing speaker.

“Some of you today may have to wait a little bit longer to receive your Harvard degrees. But you have gained another,” he said. “You have found the true Veritas — one that is not displayed on shields, one that does not wait for tenured or endowed professorships, and one that those in power have worked so hard to obfuscate.

“You have found in yourself the flame of justice,” Eghbariah added.

Hundreds of graduates and their families attended the mock graduation ceremony at Harvard-Epworth Church.
Hundreds of graduates and their families attended the mock graduation ceremony at Harvard-Epworth Church. By Frank S. Zhou

During the event, seniors who were barred from graduating also read aloud the stories of college-age Palestinians killed in the war in Gaza.

Before demonstrators arrived, organizers placed diplomas, which recognized “members of the student movement,” on the pews.

“In honor of the students in Palestine who will not get to graduate because of the ongoing Nakba. We stand up for them and our own students who have been targeted by Harvard University and are unable to graduate today,” the diploma — signed by HOOP — reads.

Throughout the celebration, graduates trickled out of the sweltering church and into the rain to attend Class Day programming for their respective schools and to escape the heat.

At the end of the ceremony, a group of pro-Israel counterprotesters stood at the exit of the church, yelling “shame” and holding Israeli flags. Pro-Palestine protesters chanted back at the group, “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.”

Graduates and faculty members described walking out of the official ceremonies to attend the “People’s Commencement” as a meaningful experience.

Sophia M. Leonard, a graduating student from the Harvard School of Public Health, said she attended the ceremony because she “couldn’t stand another moment of sitting in the hypocrisy of Harvard any longer.”

“We’re sitting here talking about, ‘you are the future, you are Harvard, you are the world,’” Leonard said. “And yet, they are actively harming those who are displaying the morals that I want to embody.”

Malak S. Rafla, an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, said that “justice here is intertwined with everyone, every walk of life — Jews, LGBTQ+, indigenous folks, everyone else.”

“Freedom and justice for one group is freedom and justice for all,” he added. “And that’s what I think this movement really symbolizes and stands for.”

Correction: May 25, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University-Wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities places time, place, and manner restrictions on protests. In fact, the statement forbids protests that disrupt the “normal duties and activities” of University affiliates.

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

—Staff writer Veronica H. Paulus can be reached at Follow her on X @VeronicaHPaulus.

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CommencementUniversityProtestsAlan GarberIsrael PalestineCommencement 2024

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Attendees at the "People's Commencement" in Harvard-Epworth Church