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Tense Campuses and Police Barricades Mark New York’s Commencement Season

LocalTense Campuses and Police Barricades Mark New York’s Commencement Season

University commencement season in New York City starts on Friday, in a climate that is anything but normal.

Turmoil over protests related to the Israel-Hamas war is seemingly everywhere. At N.Y.U., dozens of graduate student workers are threatening to withhold grades if the university does not remove police officers from campus. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, the police made more than 50 arrests on Tuesday after breaking up a pro-Palestinian student encampment there.

At City College, Fordham University, The New School and Columbia, the police have made arrests after being called in by administrators to clear out pro-Palestinian student encampments and end other demonstrations.

The police barricades that still remain outside many college buildings are a visceral reminder of the intense divisions on campus, a marked contrast with the usual festive mood around the city each May, when thousands of students walk the city streets in their robes and regalia.

At Columbia, where a police crackdown on a large Gaza solidarity encampment on April 18 sparked an international student movement to pitch tents in protest, parents of graduating students peered through locked gates on Thursday at the green lawns and empty steps where their children’s commencement should have been.

Nemat Shafik, Columbia’s president, announced on Monday that the school was canceling its main commencement ceremony, largely for security reasons. Instead, each of its 19 colleges will hold a separate ceremony, many at the school’s large athletics complex some 100 blocks north.

The first of those celebrations begins at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, with the School of Professional Studies ceremony at the athletics complex. The ceremony for the School of Social Work will be held there at 4:30 in the afternoon.

N.Y.U. will hold its large commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium next Wednesday. The New School will hold its commencement at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Queens next Friday. Graduations at other colleges continue through May 23.

At the end of a typical school year, Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus becomes a sweeping venue with bleacher seating and some 15,000 graduates and their guests arrayed around the steps of Low Library. The university president takes center stage, officially conferring degrees on the graduates from the school’s different colleges.

This year, it was not clear if Dr. Shafik would attend any of the 19 celebrations. She has rarely been spotted on campus since the police arrived on April 30 to clear out pro-Palestinian protesters from Hamilton Hall, a building they had occupied.

The sidewalks in front of her official residence have been blocked off by barricades for about a week, after students gathered in front of her building at midnight and yelled at length for a noisy finals-week tradition known as the “primal scream.”

Many students on campus are deeply upset at how the semester has gone, and many say the administration has made repeated missteps in its handling of the student protests.

“The community’s completely destroyed,” said Zohar Ford, 19, a freshman who was helping a friend move out of a freshman dorm on Tuesday on the largely locked-down campus.

“It’s 65 degrees out,” he said. “Warm, sunny, brilliant. This is supposed to be our finals week. Do you see anyone on the lawns playing around having fun? There’s nothing.” Over the past week, he said, campus “has been a ghost town that has felt like a police state.”

Dr. Shafik has not made an official announcement to the Columbia community since last week, when she explained that she had called in the police to remove protesters from Hamilton Hall because the escalation had brought “safety risks to an intolerable level.” She also called for civility to return to campus.

She has not publicly acknowledged the allegations, made by protesters and some faculty, that there was police brutality during the crackdown. Nor has she commented on how one officer, during the operation, accidentally fired his gun, hitting a wall. Instead, in her announcement, she thanked “the N.Y.P.D. for their incredible professionalism and support.”

On Thursday, she wrote an opinion essay for The Financial Times that look a long view on how universities can weather outside influences that seek to harden differences on campus. She also called on schools to “better define the boundaries between free speech and discrimination.”

“Rather than tearing ourselves apart, universities must rebuild the bonds within ourselves and between society and the academy based on our shared values and on what we do best: education, research, service and public engagement,” she said.

She faces more difficulties ahead. On Friday morning, just as students were gathering at the athletics complex for the first of the graduations, a group of faculty members announced that they would hold a partial strike until the police were removed from campus. They will grade papers, they announced, but will not perform tasks, including attending graduations, that “directly serve the administration,” a news release said.

And more than 1,000 professors at Columbia, in the faculty of arts and sciences, are currently considering a vote of no confidence in Dr. Shafik, with the final votes to be cast on May 16.

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