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UR increasing security around graduation as campus protests continue

A Palestinian flag is shown in the foreground with green and white camping tents and blue tent canopies spread on the Eastman Quad with Rush Rhees Library in the background on Day 14 of an pro-Palestinian encampment Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
Noelle E.C. Evans
A pro-Palestine encampment on the University of Rochester campus marked day 14 on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. This is Finals Week, and UR President Sarah Mangelsdorf wrote to the campus community last week that an agreement was reached to end the encampment by Monday. Graduation ceremonies are next weekend.

The University of Rochester will not cancel or alter its graduation ceremonies, a spokesperson said — but it is staffing up and taking added steps to head off potential disruptions amid ongoing campus unrest.

“We take emergency preparation seriously,” reads an updated FAQ the administration posted for graduate families and guests, “and this year that includes giving extra attention to preventing and responding to disruptive acts or protests during the ceremonies and events.”

Opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza have sparked protests on dozens of college campuses nationwide. That recently led Columbia University and USC to scrap their main graduation ceremonies. The University of Michigan has told graduates to leave any banners and signs at home.

At UR, a pro-Palestinian encampment marked day 14 on Tuesday, despite an announcement by UR President Sarah Mangelsdorf that protesters had agreed to remove their tents by Monday.

Protest signs reading "Student Power" and "In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians," hang from a tree in the University of Rochester's Eastman Quadrangle on on Tuesday, May 7.
Noelle E.C. Evans
Protest signs reading "Student Power" and "In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians," hang from a tree in the University of Rochester's Eastman Quadrangle on on Tuesday, May 7.

The university’s commencement ceremony is next Friday, May 17, at Fauver Stadium with a food truck lunch and celebration to follow on the Wilson Quadrangle. The encampment is on the Eastman Quadrangle, a short distance away.

So far the administration has refused protesters demands to sever academic ties with Israeli institutions and build partnerships with Palestinian ones instead, call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and lift all sanctions on student protestors.

Mangelsdorf signaled that UR would consider lifting sanctions if certain conditions were met, including an end of the encampment by Monday.

This is Finals Week at UR, after all, and protesters like second-year student Rebecca Santos are now balancing their activism and cramming for tests.

“And sort of like managing that expectation that I have for myself,” Santos said, “not only being a good student, but also just being a decent person — raising awareness, specifically about what's happening in Rafah in all of the constant bombing ... the people that are living in tents, you know, that's why we're living in tents, we're trying to show solidarity and raise awareness of what's going on.”

She added: "I feel motivated to do this, because I think it's important, in all instances, to stand with ... morality and humanity.”

Whether the encampment will continue through the graduation ceremonies is unclear.

“I think what we are doing is seeing how the university is responding to us, currently,” Santos said, “and sort of taking it day by day.”

Also unclear is whether graduating student protesters, particularly any facing sanctions over their actions, will be able to walk at commencement. A UR spokesperson did not provide an answer to that question Tuesday.

“We reserve the right to remove anyone who is disruptive or who fails to follow the admissions and safety protocols for the events,” reads the statement to parents at families.

Listen: Jewish perspectives on Gaza and antisemitism from WXXI's Connections

The university wrote in the statement that that it would be adding extra “crowd managers and safety personnel” for commencement events, as needed. A spokesperson later said those would consist of staffers and volunteers.

UR also has implemented safety measures including bag checks at graduation. And officials are planning for "emerging situations," saying attendees would be "given directions on how proceed for their own safety" via digital screens, verbal updates and its emergency text, phone and email notification system. A spokesperson did not answer whether the university has any information about or reason to expect planned actions to disrupt graduation ceremonies.

The plans were developed over the past several months, officials said – a point made seemingly to show this was not in reaction to the encampment.

Dozens of protesters — mostly students, with a few staff and faculty members — raised flags, banners and handmade signs in front of Wallis Hall while others staged a sit-in inside.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.
Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.