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Some students’ diplomas are in jeopardy after pro-Palestinian protests


CHICAGO – Graduation is an important moment for many Americans. The ceremonies are not just pomp and circumstance, but also mark the moment when students receive the most coveted testimony in academic life: a diploma.

But for some students who participated in pro-Palestinian protests, campus activism has cost them their degrees — at least for a while.

“Four years and just a criminal record, nothing else,” said Youssef Hasweh, one of four students at the University of Chicago who had their degrees withheld pending an investigation into a protest camp. “A decade of (high school and college) work down the toilet because I decided to express my freedom of speech.”

Students who are denied eligibility — some of whom have faced arrests, expulsions, suspensions and other disciplinary actions — say they live in limbo and are made examples of. As they wait for appeals and the results of university research, they prepare for an uncertain future. In the worst case, they are saddled with debt and have no diploma to prove it.

But while the stakes are high, they told USA TODAY that none of them regret their part in the campus protests over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

“I have these punishments and have to deal with this stress, but it is incomparable to the plight of the Palestinians,” said Devron Burks, a Vanderbilt student who was arrested and deported after the occupation of a campus building. “I don’t regret it, and I don’t think I ever will.”

‘We will be diplomaless and unemployed’

Hasweh, who has been active in pro-Palestinian protests since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, received an email about a week before his graduation stating that his degree would not be conferred.

“I have recently received multiple complaints about the quad encampment reporting issues related to disruptive behavior. In investigating the matter, you have been identified as an individual who may have been involved,” wrote Jeremy W. Inabinet, an associate professor of students, to Hasweh. in an email dated May 24. “Given that you will be involved in the Disruptive Behavior Disciplinary System and in consultation with the faculty chair, your degree will not be conferred until the matter is resolved.”

Inabinet said Hasweh will be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies on Saturday. But that could change if the university receives more reports of misconduct, the student counselor says.

Hasweh is a political science student who has family in the West Bank. He suspects the university singled him and three of his classmates out because they were part of a group arrested on misdemeanor charges for participating in a pro-Palestinian sit-in in the fall. The arrest led to an eight-month school investigation that ended with warnings for the students. Hasweh fears that they will no longer be upset.

“Everything is back on the table and we are gambling with deportation,” he said. “We will be diplomaless, jobless and find ourselves in this impossible situation.”

While the university did not answer specific questions about the arrests, it said in a statement on disciplinary procedures that “degrees may be conferred expeditiously, depending on the resolution.”

Vanderbilt student loses job offer after degree withheld

Burks, the expelled Vanderbilt student, prepares for a frightening scenario: no degree and a lot of student debt.

The 21-year-old and about twenty other students occupied an administration building for more than ten hours before campus police broke up the demonstration. Most of them were provisionally suspended, while Burks and two others were arrested on assault charges and later deported. In a statement, the university said the three community service students pushed a staff member as they forced their way into the building — a claim Burks denies.

Burks, who uses their pronouns, spent hours in a cell before being released. Burks was banned from campus and evicted from his apartment. In recent weeks he has been sleeping in Airbnbs and on friends’ couches.

Instead of being cheered on the stage of a 30,000-seat football stadium, Burks celebrated his graduation a few days earlier in a Nashville backyard. In front of several dozen students, faculty and local activists, Burks received a fake diploma and a superlative: “After this, he will most likely go on a date.”

Now home in Georgia, Burks is looking for work while in the midst of a arduous appeals process to earn his degree. The psychology student has already withdrawn one job offer.

“This was the most stressful time,” Burks said. “I can’t move on with my life without my graduation ceremony.”

Harvard won’t award degrees until 2026, student says

Harvard University has barred several students who participated in pro-Palestinian protests from graduating, according to a statement from student organizers.

Syd Sanders, a senior who may not receive his diploma until May 2026, told USA TODAY he was “shocked” by the university’s decision, adding that he and his fellow students were being punished to deter others from protesting.

“It’s crazy,” said the 22-year-old Sanders. “This was really sneaky on the part of the school, and I think it shows where they stand on freedom of speech.”

Jonathan Palumbo, a Harvard spokesman, said in an email that the university “does not comment on specific student disciplinary matters.”

Sanders said his family was upset with the school and disappointed they couldn’t see Sanders walk on commencement day. Back in Belfast, Maine, where he became one of the first openly transgender high school valedictorians, Sanders seeks work as a labor organizer.

“I’m moving on with my life,” he said. “I’m going to appeal, so I’m going to try to get my diploma, I think. But right now I’m really excited to get away from that place.”

Diplomas of two Princeton students at risk

At Princeton University, the diplomas of two seniors are in limbo pending the results of an investigation into a protest that erupted during an annual alumni event.

During President Christopher Eisgruber’s speech on May 25, demonstrators stood up, raised their red-painted hands and shouted pro-Palestinian chants, videos show. After a few minutes, the protesters walked out and continued to protest outside.

Khari Franklin, one of two seniors who did not graduate, was in the audience but did not participate in the demonstration, he told The Daily Princetonian. He said he decided to leave to avoid any possible discipline as he was among a group of students arrested in late April when police broke up a sit-in. Franklin and the other students received trespassing summonses and were temporarily barred from campus.

“It is the University’s standard practice that when seniors are involved in alleged disciplinary violations shortly before commencement, their degrees are held pending the completion of a disciplinary investigation,” said a statement from Jennifer Morrill, a spokesperson for the University of Princeton.

“The University continues to enforce position-neutral rules for time, place and manner during end-of-year events. A wide range of protest activities are allowed, including leaving an event. Significant disruption of university activities and events is not permitted. ”

On Monday, Franklin received an email stating that while he could attend commencement, he would not receive a diploma until the investigation was completed.

“It’s very surreal. Because on the one hand, I haven’t fully processed that the university would have gone so far and been so drastic… without any indication or warning or reasonable expectation that a rule had been broken,” he told the student newspaper. “But at the same time, I’m not surprised either.”

The disciplinary measures will last until the summer holidays

The threat of suspensions and other disciplinary measures looms for dozens of students at several schools.

Columbia University administrators have imposed interim suspensions on more than 30 students that could become permanent, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student organizations. Barnard College students who protested in Columbia were also suspended, the group said.

Neither Barnard nor Columbia, which has been at the epicenter of the university protests for months, responded to requests for comment.

In Florida, administrators at New College, a progressive public liberal arts school turned conservative institution by Republicans, said students who interrupted the May 17 commencement with “booing” and chants of “free Palestine” could have their diplomas withheld and face suspension.

“We support and protect the right to free speech while firmly insisting on civil debate,” a statement from the school said. “Disruptive activities by a few individuals at a ceremonial event attended by hundreds are not representative of any of these principles.”

‘I would do it a thousand times again’

Hasweh, a student at the University of Chicago, had fantasized about attending the prestigious college for years before he was accepted. Now the graduation weekend he has long been looking forward to will be drenched in frustration, not only for him but for his family as well.

“How can a mother not be outraged that a school that was meant to care for her child was the one that abused him,” Hasweh said.

Yet Hasweh’s resolve is intact.

“Even if I don’t get my degree, I would do it again a thousand times,” he said.

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