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At Commencement, pro-Palestine protesters silently demonstrate and walkout

Around 15 students, many wearing keffiyehs, are facing away from the stage. Other graduates are seated and looking forward. In the background, President Eisgruber is shown on a large screen giving a speech.
During the Commencement Address, students stood up with their faces turned away from Eisgruber.
Ryland Graham / The Daily Princetonian

On May 28, Princeton’s 277th Commencement ceremony concluded several days of celebrations on campus. Pro-Palestine protests, which have ramped up following the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” and continued into Reunions, were also present at Commencement, including around 70 students turning their backs to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 during a portion of his speech.

According to the University, 1,295 undergraduate degrees and 609 graduate degrees were awarded on Tuesday. Before the ceremony began, about 10 pro-Palestine protesters stood by the guest entrance to Princeton Stadium, handing out Palestinian flags and holding up posters in support of the University divesting from Israel. 

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In his commencement speech, President Eisgruber referenced recent controversies over commencement speakers at other universities, including speakers who have publicly taken positions on the war in Gaza. While no speakers are chosen for the University’s commencement, since the president gives the address each year, Eisgruber acknowledged that “… in this year I recognize that I am myself a controversial choice for some of you.” 

He also said that he was “grateful” to graduates, describing the uncertainties that members of the Class of 2024, many of whom began  university during the pandemic, have experienced. He urged them to continue to “lean into life after Princeton, and into your communities wherever you are, with the same dazzling energy and imagination you showed while you were here.” 

A few minutes into Eisgruber’s speech, as he said that “we should all respect and listen to one another despite our political differences,” around 70 students stood up and turned their backs to him in an apparent act of silent protest. Separately, over 15 students also walked out of the stadium, many — but not all — wearing keffiyehs. Three banners were also hung from railings around the stadium, reading “Israel Bombs, Princeton Pays,” “Princeton Out of Israel,” and “No Donations Until Divestment,” with a QR-code to sign a pledge not to donate until divestment from Israel that has 729 signatures as of 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28. 

At least two graduating students were seen carrying Israeli flags. They did not seem to take part in any additional actions during the ceremony. 

This demonstration followed pro-Palestinian protests held during commencement ceremonies at schools across the country. At Columbia, after weeks of campus protests and the university deciding to cancel its main commencement ceremony, some students held signs in support of divestment and against the war in Gaza, though they did not disruptively protest.

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During Harvard’s commencement ceremony, more than 1,000 students walked out in protest of the decision made by the university’s governing body, the Harvard Corporation, to prohibit 13 student protesters from graduating. At Princeton, at least two seniors have had their degrees held temporarily, though they were still allowed to attend Commencement. 

The silent protest and walkout were notably different from previous demonstrations which attempted to disrupt University proceedings. On Saturday, protesters chanted and raised red hands during Eisgruber’s annual Reunions address and briefly blocked the procession of the P-Rade by sitting in front of one of the vehicles leading the parade. Additionally, the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) fountain and Robertson Hall were vandalized with red dye and spray paint that morning.

Genrietta Churbanova ’24, valedictorian, and John Freeman ’24, salutatorian, also spoke at Commencement.

In her speech, Churbanova emphasized the value of education in making change.

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“It is no surprise that those in power have historically sought to deny education to those they oppress, and that school and university curricula are even now the topic of such intense debate. Education gives us the power to challenge injustice,” she said.

Churbanova is a former head Opinion editor for the ‘Prince.’

Freeman, who delivered his speech in Latin, per tradition, spoke about the difficulties that the Class of 2024 has had to face, but pointed to the achievements of the class and the community they were able to create. 

“We lost our first year to COVID, but as much as we know what it is like to not have gatherings and performances, the more we now enjoy this place, which we have called home,” reads the English translation of his speech. 

Numerous awards and honorary degrees were also given during the ceremony. Notably, General Mark A. Milley ’80, former Joint Chiefs Chair and SPIA visiting professor and lecturer, received an honorary Doctor of Laws.

Post-Commencement, several protestors stood by the main guest entrance, once again holding signs. At least one had their hands painted in red and raised in the air. After one small group walked around chanting “Free, Free Palestine,” the protestors packed up and left.

The full commencement ceremony can be viewed on Princeton University’s account on YouTube.

Christopher Bao is an assistant News editor and the accessibility director for the ‘Prince.’ He is from Princeton, N.J. and typically covers town politics and life.

Megan Cameron is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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