College graduation canceled due to anti-war protests? It's happened before.

As protests continue to disrupt campuses, college leaders across the country have begun asking themselves a difficult question while they scramble to plan graduation ceremonies: Should we cancel?

It’s not a decision they take lightly, though many have likely tackled the conundrum before. Natural disasters, public health concerns and security risks occasionally prompt school leaders to consider altering or nixing commencement ceremonies out of an abundance of caution.

The bar is high. But campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war appear to be meeting it – at least at some schools, including New York's Columbia University, which has been the nexus of student activism and demands for college administrators to sever economic ties with Israel. On Monday, Columbia canceled its main graduation event, which was slated for mid-May. It will hold smaller, school-based ceremonies instead.

“These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community,” Columbia’s administrators wrote in an update Monday.

College protests live updates: Columbia cancels main commencement; universities crackdown on encampments

The University of Southern California made a similar call last month, following dozens of arrests and the cancelation of the Los Angeles campus' valedictorian speaker. Emory University in Atlanta this week relocated its festivities.

This year is by no means the first time commencement ceremonies were thrown into disarray. Throughout American history, social unrest, including mass anti-war protests, has impeded the traditional pomp and circumstance that marks the culmination of college for students and their families. Experts say when cultural upheaval on campus hinders colleges’ ability to hold end-of-year celebrations, it can be an indicator that society is experiencing an important political and cultural moment.

But anyone who calls the recent tumult "unprecedented" is missing the mark, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at Rutgers University who studies the history of higher education in the U.S.

“This has happened over and over and over,” she said.

Pandemic aftershocks reverberate

The COVID-19 pandemic was the last major disruptor of college graduations. As the virus spread, social-distancing became the norm, and many schools scrapped their ceremonies to prevent mass infections. In the early 20th century, when higher education was much less widely available to people in the U.S., the Spanish flu similarly derailed graduation ceremonies and college sporting events.

Many seniors set to graduate from Columbia and USC – and other campuses contemplating cancelation – never got to cross a stage in a cap and gown to receive their high school diplomas. Instead, they marked the end of 12th grade with drive-through and Zoom ceremonies. Though the pandemic upended the traditional college-going experience for broad swaths of American students, the Class of 2024 has been hit hardest, sandwiched in between two highly unpredictable chapters in American society – a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a new war in the Middle East, both of which have caused profound cultural fracturing.

Natural disasters have plagued the commencement tradition, too. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes drenched central Pennsylvania in 19 inches of rain. The calamitous flooding that year forced Penn State Harrisburg to cancel the event, according to the school's website. Hurricanes Irma and Harvey in 2017 had the same impacts for some students.

Echoes of another anti-war era

Public reaction to U.S. involvement in armed conflicts has long interfered with college graduations, dating back to World War I and during World War II. Historians have also drawn throughlines between today’s anti-war movement and young people’s opposition to the Vietnam War and South African apartheid.

Student demonstrators at Columbia, an Ivy League school, took over the Manhattan campus in 1968 to protest the university’s ties to a war-connected think tank (and plans for a gym that would have been functionally segregated). The demonstrations led to mass arrests, not unlike those seen in recent weeks on the same campus.

The Columbia situation, explained: Alumni pressure and a crime-fighting mayor helped set the stage for another round of arrests

Administrators eventually capitulated to the students' demands and Columbia’s commencement ceremony took place that year, though it was held several blocks from campus. Instead of the school’s then-president addressing the crowd, a history professor gave the keynote speech.

Then came the Kent State shootings. In May 1970, National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at the public university in Kent, Ohio, during demonstrations over the Vietnam War. Nine others were wounded, including a freshman who was paralyzed as a result of the shooting.

Kent State shootings: Paralyzed by a bullet, he still loves Kent State, urges others to be 'good citizens'

The ordeal ultimately gave rise to a widespread student strike that closed hundreds of colleges and worsened already-souring public sentiment over the war.

Graduation ceremonies were another casualty of the Kent State shootings. New York's Hunter College scrapped its end-of-year event and invited the Class of 1970 back to walk the stage nearly a decade later, the New York Times reported in 1979. On May 5, 1970, Boston University's school council also voted to cancel exams and skip commencement. Those students ultimately walked the stage 40 years afterward.

In the ensuing decades, colleges started to decentralize their graduation ceremonies, according to John Thelin, a higher education historian and the author of “Going to College in the Sixties.” Many schools began to hold smaller, more intimate events for students to receive their diplomas alongside classmates enrolled in similar degree programs. It's a trend that has continued and will likely make it possible for many Columbia graduates to don their robes and still have a somewhat traditional send-off.

Despite the historical parallels, college campuses are far more diverse and inclusive than they were five decades ago. On the whole, that's a good thing, Thelin said. But it also has created new challenges for administrators when it comes to navigating issues as complex and personal as the war in the Middle East.

“An irony is that with diversity, in addition to harmony, you also have a chance for disagreement,” Thelin said. “The chances for some spark of tension within the ranks of a campus are greater than they were.”

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at zschermele@usatoday.com. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why do colleges cancel graduation? A brief history

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