News & Politics

Hochul promises in-person college graduation ceremonies as Columbia protests escalate

The governor said she does not want universities to cancel their in-person commencement ceremonies due to security concerns.

A pro-Palestinian student protester speaks to a crowd at Columbia University on April 29, 2024.

A pro-Palestinian student protester speaks to a crowd at Columbia University on April 29, 2024. Uzma Afreen

As pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University held their ground after taking over an academic building, Gov. Kathy Hochul promised university presidents that the state will make resources available to ensure colleges are able to hold in-person commencement ceremonies amid ongoing protests at schools across the state. 

“Students and families who have worked hard and invested much for years should not be denied that opportunity as the result of the actions of others,” she wrote in a letter to college presidents, a copy of which was shared with City & State. “That is why extensive security preparations, including identification of appropriate event sites, must be considered now. It is my expectation that every college and university in New York will celebrate commencement safely in person.”

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Hochul noted the University of Southern California’s decision to cancel its main ceremony because of security concerns. The governor was adamant that the same thing must not happen in New York – especially because many of the students set to graduate this spring also had their high school graduations interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago.

“What we need to do is deescalate the situation, restore a sense of normalcy on campus and make sure every student is safe and unharmed,” Hochul said.

The commencement ceremonies scheduled for May 15 have hung heavy on Columbia University officials minds as they’ve attempted to break up the encampment on campus that’s sparked a nationwide movement over the last two weeks. 

On Monday, Columbia distributed forms to members of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” that urged them to not “deprive” their classmates of the upcoming ceremonies and threatened to suspend them unless they vacated the area within a few hours. After members voted to remain and hundreds of additional students and faculty coalesced on campus to protect the encampment amid fears of another police crackdown, university officials told the press that they had begun suspending students who didn’t comply. (It’s unclear exactly how many students have been suspended in wake of the university’s threat. Officials have so far declined to say, though at least a few students were notified of their suspensions on Tuesday.)

Things escalated just after midnight on Tuesday morning, as dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters stormed Hamilton Hall, barricading the doors with furniture and vowing to remain until the university agrees to their demands. These demands include financial transparency into all of the university’s direct and indirect investments, divestment from companies tied to Israel’s invasion of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank and amnesty for student protesters according to a statement from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the organization behind the school’s encampment.

In response, Columbia officials closed the Manhattan campus Tuesday to everyone but the students who live in dorms located on campus and university employees who provide essential services. Faculty members, reporters and even students who live in off-campus dorms have all been barred from entering. Around noon, university spokesperson Ben Chang released a statement threatening the students occupying Hamilton Hall with expulsion from the university. 

“We made it very clear yesterday that the work of the university cannot be endlessly interrupted by protesters who violate the rules. Continuing to do so will be met with clear consequences,” the statement reads. “Protesters have chosen to escalate to an untenable situation – vandalizing property, breaking doors and windows, and blockading entrances – and we are following through with the consequences we outlined yesterday.”

Like Hochul, a string of other elected officials condemned the latest escalation.

Speaking from the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “taking over university buildings is not free speech – it’s lawlessness” and “those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist.”

“Campuses cannot be places of learning and argument and discussion when protests veer into criminality, and those who commit such acts are doing nothing to convince others that their cause is just,” he added.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, who has established himself as one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel in Congress, wrote on X: “So much for “peaceful protests” at Columbia University.  Violence is not a bug but a feature of the pro-Hamas encampment movement, which has a deep rot of Anti-Americanism and AntiSemitism at its core.

New York City Council Member Julie Menin, a Columbia alum,  said that university officials needed to “step up.” “When I was an undergraduate student @columbia, Hamilton Hall was taken over. The images I am seeing today are harrowing. This is not a peaceful (sit-in). Antisemitism, vandalism and blockading doors are totally unacceptable,” she wrote on X.

Addressing reporters during his weekly media briefing, Adams reiterated that he would continue to defer to New York City college presidents on whether to send police to break up protests. While the New York City Police Department has maintained a presence outside of Columbia's gate, police haven’t entered campus since April 18, when officers arrested over 100 protesters. 

“We’re going to respect their right to determine when they want police involvement, and when they ask us,” Adams said, adding that any police involvement would be done with “a minimum amount of force.”

Adams also shot down the possibility of the National Guard being called in to deal with campus protests in the city, saying that the NYPD “is doing an amazing job” and did not need additional support. Hochul largely backed up the mayor’s assertion at her own press conference. She said that she does not foresee the NYPD needing assistance, and she said if that changes, the state would send in state troopers before mobilizing the National Guard.

On Tuesday evening, Adams took an even harder line against the Columbia protests during a press conference at One Police Plaza. He and NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban accused “external actors” of hijacking the protests and said parents of students should warn their children to leave the protest “before things escalate.” “This is for their own safety,” he said.