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

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CHICAGO – Graduation is an important moment for many Americans. More than just pomp and circumstance, the ceremonies mark when students are handed the most coveted testimonial in academic life: A diploma.

But for some college 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 have had their degrees withheld pending an investigation into a protest encampment. “A decade of (high school and college) work down the toilet because I decided to express my free speech.”

Students being denied conferment – some of whom have faced arrests, expulsions, suspensions and other disciplinary action – say they’re in limbo and are being made into examples. As they await appeals processes and the results of university investigations, they’re preparing for an uncertain future. In the worst case scenario, they’ll be saddled with debt and will have no degree to show for it.

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

“I have these punishments and have to work through this stress, but it’s incomparable to the plight of Palestinians,” said Devron Burks, a Vanderbilt student who was arrested and expelled following the occupation of a campus building. “I don’t regret it, and I don’t think I ever will.”

‘We’ll be degreeless and jobless’

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

“I recently received multiple complaints regarding the quad encampment that report issues related to disruptive conduct. In investigating the matter, you have been identified as an individual that may have been involved,” Jeremy W. Inabinet, an associate dean of students, wrote Hasweh in a May 24 email. “Given the fact that you will be involved in the Disciplinary System for Disruptive Conduct and in consultation with the Faculty Chair, your degree will not be conferred until the resolution of this matter occurs.”

Inabinet said Hasweh would be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies on Saturday. But that could change if the university gets any further reports of misconduct, the dean of students said.

Hasweh is a political science student who has family in the West Bank. He suspects the university singled him and three of his classmates because they were among a group arrested on trespassing 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 they won’t be let off the hook again.

“Everything is on the table again, and we’re gambling with expulsion,” he said. “We’ll be degreeless and jobless and put in this impossible situation.”

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

Vanderbilt student loses job offer after diploma withheld

Burks, the expelled Vanderbilt student, is preparing for a frightening scenario: No degree and a lot of student debt.

The 21-year-old, along with about two dozen other students, occupied an administration building for more than 10 hours before campus police broke up the demonstration. Most of them were placed on interim suspension, while Burks and two others were arrested on an assault charge and later expelled. In a statement, the university said the three students pushed a community service officer and a staff member as they forced their way into the building – a claim Burks denies.

Burks, who uses they/them pronouns, spent hours in a holding cell before being released. Barred from campus, Burks was evicted from their apartment and for the last several weeks has slept in Airbnbs and on friend’s couches.

Instead of being applauded on stage at a 30,000-seat soccer stadium, Burks celebrated graduation a few days early at a backyard in Nashville. In front of a few dozen students, faculty members and local activists, Burks received a mock diploma and a superlative: “Most likely to go on a date after this.”

Now at home in Georgia, Burks is looking for work while in the midst of an arduous appeal process to obtain their degree. The psychology student already has had one job offer rescinded.

“This has been the most stressful time,” Burks said. “Without my degree conferral, I can’t move on with my life.”

Harvard will not confer degree until at least 2026, student says

Harvard University 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 degree until May 2026, told USA TODAY he was “shocked” by the university’s decision, and added he and his fellow students were being punished to deter others from protesting.

“It’s insane,” Sanders, 22, said. “This was really sneaky of the school, and I think it reveals where they stand on free speech.”

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

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

“I’m going to move on with my life,” he said. “I’m filing my appeal so I’m gonna try to get my diploma, I guess. But right now I really just am excited to be away from that place.”

Degrees of two Princeton students in jeopardy

At Princeton University, the degrees of two seniors have been thrown into uncertainty pending the results of an investigation into a protest that broke out at an annual event for alums.

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

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

“It is standard University practice that when seniors are involved in alleged disciplinary violations soon before Commencement, their degrees are held pending the conclusion of a disciplinary investigation,” said a statement by Jennifer Morrill, a Princeton University spokesperson.

“The University continues to enforce viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner rules during end-of-year events. A wide range of protest activity is permitted, including walking out of an event. Significantly disrupting University operations and events is not permitted.”

On Monday, Franklin received an email telling him that while he could attend the commencement, he would not be given a diploma until the investigation is concluded.

“It’s very surreal. Because on one hand, I have not quite processed that the university would have gone this far, and been this 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 also am not surprised.”

Disciplinary actions linger into summer break

At several schools, the threat of suspensions and other disciplinary action looms over dozens of students.

Columbia University administrators gave more than 30 students interim suspensions that could become permanent, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student organizations. Barnard College students protesting at Columbia also were suspended, the group said.

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

In Florida, administrators at New College, a progressive public liberal arts school that state Republicans have been reshaping into a conservative institution, said students who interrupted the May 17 commencement with “boos” and chants of “free Palestine” could have their degrees withheld and face suspension.

“We support and protect the right of free speech while resolutely insisting upon civil discourse,” a statement from the school said. “Disruptive activities by a few individuals at a ceremonial event attended by hundreds is not representative of either of these principles.”

‘I’d do it a thousand times over’

Hasweh, the University of Chicago student, had fantasized about attending the prestigious college for years before he was accepted. Now the graduation weekend he had long anticipated will be imbued with frustration, not only for him but for his family, too.

“How can a mother not be enraged that a school meant to take care of her child was the one that brutalized him,” Hasweh said.

Still, Hasweh’s resolve is intact.

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

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