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Graduation speeches should avoid mentioning Gaza, readers say

Readers say

“Graduation ceremonies are intended to celebrate graduates’ achievements, not to respond to political constraints. »

Douglas Holloway speaks after receiving his honorary degree. Emerson College held its commencement ceremony at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on May 12, 2024. Many students verbally protested throughout the ceremony. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff)

At Boston-area universities embroiled in protests against the war in Gaza, the graduation season was marked by strong emotions among students, faculty and speakers invited to speak at graduation celebrations. ‘year.

Campus protests and encampments began popping up on campuses across the country around mid-April, with Boston-area protesters setting up their tents soon after. Prominent schools like Harvard and MIT have faced intense scrutiny and media coverage, both because of their encampments and the responses of university officials and police.

  • Who will be the commencement speakers at colleges in Boston and New England? Here is an updated list.

  • Live updates: Pro-Palestinian protests rock Boston-area campuses

The Harvard camp took place peacefully on Tuesday, a week before the start of the school year scheduled for May 23.

After being stationed at Harvard Yard for several weeks, the Harvard student group Out of Occupied Palestine said its members voted Monday to close its encampment, but said their fight for the school to divest from Israel does not was not finished.

At Northeastern University, which held its graduation ceremony on May 5, tensions between students and university officials over the war reached a fever pitch from the start.

The school’s undergraduate ceremony at Fenway Park was briefly interrupted by a pro-Palestinian protester and a graduating student was arrested by police after leaving his seat to yell at administrators at the start of the ceremony, according to the World. The ceremony’s opening speaker, Morehouse College President David A. Thomas, did not directly address the protests during his speech.

We asked our readers to tell us whether or not commencement speakers should mention campus protests and the war in Gaza in their graduation speeches. The majority (78%) of 251 respondents to our survey said no, junior speakers should not talk about it. 16% said yes, they should, and 6% voted “other.”

Many “no” voters argued that back to school is a time to celebrate graduates, not talk about politics.

“This is not the time or place to discuss divisive topics like politics,” said reader Mike P. of Cape Cod.

Should graduation speakers mention the Gaza war and university protests at their respective graduation ceremonies?

Yes, they should mention it

No, they shouldn’t talk about it

Stick the key message

Mark Castel, founder and president of the AEI Speakers Bureau, which seeks professional speakers for private events and podiums in the corporate and education sectors, told Boston.com that the goal of A commencement speaker is to inspire graduates and celebrate their academic achievements.

“The commencement speaker’s job is to talk to the graduates and focus on their accomplishments, on what lies ahead for these kids. That’s the key message,” he said in an interview with Boston.com.

Castel was in high school in the 1970s and remembers student protests against the draft and the United States’ war in Vietnam. He said protesting was important and a privilege afforded to those who live in a free country like the United States, but it also had its limits.

“I don’t think this is the ideal venue for junior speakers to raise a very volatile issue,” he said.

Having a disruption- and politics-free start to the school year is especially important for this year’s graduating class, Castel said, because students likely graduated from high school during COVID-19 — and without a proper graduation ceremony.

“We must respect different points of view and engage in productive dialogue. But I don’t think it’s fair to these kids for their graduation to be cut short. I think it’s a very dishonest thing to do,” he said.

Instead, he believes speakers should “stick to the key message, which is focused on their achievements and what lies ahead in their lives, and bring joy back to it because they missed it ago is four years old,” he added.

Address the conflict head on

The ongoing conflict has already led some schools to change speakers at the last minute, as was the case for Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola, who was originally scheduled to be Concord Academy’s commencement speaker.

Others chose to renege on their speaking commitments. Colson Whitehead, Harvard alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was scheduled to speak at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s graduation ceremony on May 18, but dropped out due to the police response in university to student protesters.

“Calling the police on peaceful protesters is a shameful act,” he said on social media platform Bluesky. A total of 130 people have been arrested and are facing trial at the Eastern District Court in Hampshire this week. The school said the ceremony would take place without a commencement speaker.

Lara Jirmanus, an instructor and fellow at Harvard, said universities should not shy away from addressing the ongoing war or conflicts on campus. Speakers should mention campus protests and the war in Gaza, even if it causes “a few moments of discomfort,” she wrote in a statement to Boston.com.

“I dream of a future where Palestinians will have the privilege of thriving and seeing their children graduate, and where their elders will live to see their children graduate. It is precisely because our taxes and endowments are used to finance the Israeli bombs that have razed universities and schools in Gaza that they cannot do so,” she said.

“What exactly are we trying to protect promotions and administrators from? » » added Jimanus.

Below, see what some readers had to say about whether or not commencement speakers should bring up the war in Gaza and campus protests.

Answers have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Should commencement speakers mention the Gaza war and university protests?

No

“Graduation ceremonies are intended to celebrate graduates’ achievements, not to respond to political constraints. » – Deb G., Methuen

“I am a strong believer in the First Amendment, but I believe there is a time and a place. Graduating from college isn’t about commencement speakers, it’s about celebrating the achievements of graduating students. – Sarah, Chatham

“The students worked so hard to graduate and for them to be overshadowed by these events is truly unfortunate, not to mention the parents, grandparents and family who came to the graduation to celebrate a milestone . They do not deserve to participate in a demonstration against their will.” – JLM, Boston

“Whatever your politics, going to college has nothing to do with war. Making this celebration solely around your pet political project is extremely selfish and absolutely undermines the message you are trying to convey. – Brian, Roslindale

“Commencement is about the graduates and their accomplishments. If the speaker cannot express his political views in his speech, he should decline the invitation.” – Steve, East Boston

Yes

“The beginning speaker should address the conflict if he or she wishes to do so. I don’t think they have a responsibility to do this and if they do, it should be done in a generic way to encourage graduate participation in the political process. They should not go into detail about this particular manifestation. That’s not what they’re there for. – Christine W., Quincy

“It’s a loaded phrase, but it depends on the context. Commencement speeches usually reflect the experience and aspirations of students who are about to make their way in the world. The best of these speeches can help graduates feel proud of their accomplishments in school and also excited about making a positive contribution to the world. If the Israel-Hamas conflict is relevant to the speaker’s particular narrative, it should certainly be mentioned, as should the protests, again if they are relevant. Yes, it’s shaky ground. And I don’t want to see these ceremonies disrupted. But they have been before, often with speakers who did not mention the conflict or unrest on campus at all. I don’t think resolving them makes disruption more likely.” – Ken S., Cambridge

“Keynote speakers should be allowed to speak freely, there is no ‘yes they should’ or ‘no they shouldn’t’… it’s up to them. Colleges have long been considered places to express and discuss ideas and explore different topics through constructive discussions. The beginning should be no different. If administrations want to pull the plug, they can (and probably will) exercise that power. However, freedom of thought and expression in colleges has always been considered a key element of the value of a college education. – Matt M..

“I believe that every individual, especially those who have a platform to reach larger groups, has an obligation to speak out against the atrocities occurring in Gaza and the West Bank. We have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to stop this harm. » – PJS, Westchester County, New York

Boston.com occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be interpreted as an unscientific measure of reader opinion.

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