Updated May 5, 2024 - Politics & Policy

College campuses are on edge — just in time for graduation

police watcha  protest

Campus police stand among student demonstrators at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Colleges are bracing for a month of commencement and graduation events while student unrest is near a boiling point on some campuses over the war in Gaza.

Why it matters: Tensions mounted, then spread when Columbia University called police to break up protesters' encampments last month, but so far, many schools are keeping with their graduation plans.

  • One exception is the University of Southern California, which opted for a celebratory event on May 9 instead of a traditional ceremony. Los Angeles police in riot gear entered the USC campus early Sunday to help clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after issuing a dispersal warning.
  • The University of Michigan and Indiana University had graduation ceremonies scheduled for Saturday, while Ohio State University and Northeastern University held commencements on Sunday.
Los Angeles Police Department officers dismantle the pro-Palestinian encampment on Alumni Park at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California, on May 5, 2024. Pro-Palestinian protests that have rocked US campuses for weeks were more muted Friday after a series of clashes with police, mass arrests and a stern White House directive to restore order.
Los Angeles police officers dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment on Alumni Park at the University of Southern California on Sunday. The LAPD said on X there were "no arrests, no use of force, and no injuries" to officers or protesters. Photo: Jason Goode/AFP via Getty Images

Driving the news: It's a little over a week after the pro-Palestinian student encampment at Northeastern University was cleared by police and nearly 100 demonstrators were arrested.

  • Tensions between students and the college's administration are at a fever pitch.

What they're saying: "Things obviously aren't back to normal," civil engineering major Colin Sutherland, who was set to graduate Sunday, told the student paper the Huntington News.

Northeastern University spokesperson Renata Nyul wouldn't say if the school was going to put restrictions on students' or guests' speeches or ability to express political stances on their mortarboards or graduation regalia, a popular tradition at NEU and other schools.

  • Nyul told Axios in a statement there would be "enhanced student affairs and public safety staffing" at Fenway on Sunday, but would not answer questions about limitations on students' speech at the event.
  • National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan was scheduled to speak at NEU's Fenway ceremony Sunday.
  • The class's undergraduate student speaker was biology and political science major Rebecca Bamidele.

What we're watching: Civil liberties expert Harvey Silverglate told Axios that students who demonstrate at graduation should be constitutionally protected.

  • "The constitution gives us the right to aggravate our fellow citizens and gives the right to aggravate the leaders of our institutions, and our own government," Silverglate said.
  • A picket outside a graduation event, a student walkout or any other action that does not disrupt the event should be allowed under the federal and state constitutions, according to Silverglate.

The big picture: President Biden defended students' right to protest peacefully Thursday, but condemned aggressive actions on campuses nationwide as students rally against the Israel-Hamas war.

What's next: Emerson College, which had its own student encampment raided by police last week, will hold commencement May 12.

  • Boston University and Tufts University's events are the following Sunday. Harvard's commencement is May 23.

MIT will hold its commencement ceremony May 29.

  • School spokesperson Sarah McDonnell told Axios MIT police and local first responders "will engage in wide-ranging scenario planning ahead of this year's Commencement ceremony" to prepare for situations that could impact the event.
  • McDonnell said in an email MIT does not publicly discuss the specifics of internal safety plans.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with details of police clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Southern California.

Go deeper