Graduating amid signs of protest: 6,800 UMass students receive diplomas at ceremony briefly interrupted by walk out

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate Jack Minella, left, and an unidentified College of Natural Sciences classmate stand with their backs to Chancellor Javier Reyes as he speaks during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate Jack Minella, left, and an unidentified College of Natural Sciences classmate stand with their backs to Chancellor Javier Reyes as he speaks during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes speaks during the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes speaks during the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Amherst resident Gabriella Goldin, waves to family during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. Goldin received a degree from the College of Natural Sciences. 

Amherst resident Gabriella Goldin, waves to family during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. Goldin received a degree from the College of Natural Sciences.  FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes speaks during the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes speaks during the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates, many who walked out of their graduation ceremony, attend an alternative graduation ceremony along with pro-Palestinian community members outside Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Sophia He speaks during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

Sophia He speaks during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVAN

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags, signs and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst students carry Palestinian flags, signs and banners as they walk out of their graduation ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

University of Massachusetts Amherst graduates celebrate during their undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

Guest look for graduates during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday.

Guest look for graduates during the University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate commencement ceremony at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst on Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHRISTOPHER EVANS

By Elise Linscott

For the Gazette

Published: 05-18-2024 4:22 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 2:33 PM


AMHERST — Several dozen protesters marched out of the 154th UMass Amherst Undergraduate Commencement ceremony this weekend when Chancellor Javier Reyes took the podium, including a few faculty members and people in the stands carrying banners, chanting “free, free Palestine” as they walked out.

When Reyes was first introduced during the opening processions, boos and a few cheers were audible from students and audience members. A few students were then heard yelling expletives at protesters who held up Palestinian flags as they marched out, telling them to “sit down” and “go to Gaza.”

Once protesters left, Reyes invited the 6,800 graduates — many of whom started their college careers at the height of the pandemic — to stand if they were able, and some cheered.

The ceremony carried on as scheduled, albeit without a keynote speaker; Colson Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who was originally slated to deliver the keynote address, backed out May 9, citing the university’s handling of police action against protesters that week. There was not a replacement speaker.

Reyes has come under fire for the decision to carry out arrests at an encampment on May 7, with some calling for his resignation. He continued to defend those decisions, telling the Faculty Senate in a special session that it was ultimately about safety on campus.

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“You pursued your undergraduate degree during a global pandemic and now graduate at a time of continued global uncertainty,” Reyes said during his inaugural commencement speech on Saturday. “Over the past year, this uncertainty has been increasingly visible on college campuses across the country, including our own. As both chancellor and as a father of two college students — one who just graduated last week — I am heartened by the passion of this generation and your desire to actively work toward creating a better world. Your advocacy challenges us to explore new perspectives and create new understandings.

“As a public university, we are deeply committed to upholding the tenets of academic freedom,” he continued. “We will always support the rights of our students, faculty and staff to explore challenging ideas and advocate for a point of view. We also recognize that while we may not always agree, this university must be a place where students and faculty are able to pursue opportunities and make choices that work for them, even if they are not choices that we would make for ourselves.”

A small pro-Palestinian gathering was held on the southeast lawn near the stadium after protesters left, where speakers from the university and community members from organizations like Valley Families for Palestine showed support for the graduates and for Palestine. Members of the Students for Justice for Palestine organized the gathering to honor Gaza’s Class of 2024, who could not have commencements of their own, the group wrote in an Instagram post.

“It’s very surreal,” Layal Khartabil said of graduating Saturday. “It went by very quick, but it was a pretty good experience overall.”

Khartabil said she walked to the gathering on the southeast lawn after the commencement ceremony ended to show her support.

“My grandparents are from Palestine, so it hits pretty close to home,” Khartabil said. “I’m all for the peaceful protesting and everybody speaking their mind and I think this is such a great way to try to make change and bring everyone together.”

Security measures were in place ahead of commencement. Guests and students had to pass through metal detectors before entering the stadium, and security personnel searched large bags, too.

During Saturday’s ceremony, venture capital firm founder Paul B. Manning, philanthropist Earl W. Stafford, and conductor Jason K. Fettig, were bestowed honorary degrees.

Distinguished Achievement Awards were given to alumni Denise Hurst, a community leader and longtime member of the Springfield School Committee, and Michelle Cardinal, a marketing industry executive and part owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Sophia He, a linguistics major from Fremont, California, represented the undergraduate Class of 2024 as student speaker at the ceremony.

“The strength you have all built here overcoming academic, personal, and global challenges is a testament for us to never give up,” she said during her speech.

The university also recognized 10 undergraduates with the 21st Century Leaders Award for their talents and accomplishments.

Also this weekend, nearly 2,750 graduate students were honored in a separate commencement ceremony at the university.

Elise Linscott is a freelance writer living in Northampton. She can be reached at elise@eliselinscott.com.