Graduation speeches should avoid mentions of Gaza, readers say

Readers Say

“Commencements are to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduates, not to address political duress.”

Douglas Holloway speaks after receiving his honorary degree. Emerson College held its commencement ceremony at Boston University’s Agganis Arena onMay 12, 2024. Many students verbally protested throughout the ceremony. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

At Boston-area colleges embroiled in campus protests over the war in Gaza, graduation season has come with fraught emotions among students, faculty, and the commencement speakers invited to speak at the end-of-year celebrations.

Campus protests and encampments first emerged on campuses across the country around mid-April, with protesters in the Boston area setting up tents soon after. High-profile schools like Harvard and MIT have come under intense scrutiny and media coverage both for their encampments and responses by university officials and police.

  • Who will be the commencement speakers at colleges in Boston and across New England? Here’s an updating list.

  • Live updates: Pro-Palestinian protests roil Boston-area campuses

Harvard’s encampment came down peacefully on Tuesday, a week before the school’s commencement is set to take place on May 23.

After being stationed in Harvard Yard for several weeks, the student group Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine said its members voted Monday to close down its encampment, but said their fight for the school to divest from Israel is not over.

At Northeastern University, which held its graduation ceremony on May 5, tensions between students and university officials over the war came to a head at commencement.

The school’s undergraduate ceremony at Fenway Park was briefly interrupted by a pro-Palestinian protester and one graduating student was arrested by police after he left his seat to yell at administrators early in the ceremony, according to the Globe. The commencement speaker for the ceremony, Morehouse College President David A. Thomas, did not directly address the protests during his speech.

We asked our readers to weigh in on whether or not commencement speakers should mention campus protests and the war in Gaza in their graduation speeches. The majority (78%) of the 251 respondents to our poll said no, commencement speakers shouldn’t mention it. 16% said yes, they should, with 6% voting “other.”

Many “no” voters argued commencement is a space to celebrate the graduates, not to bring up politics.

“It’s not the time or place to bring up divisive topics like politics,” reader Mike P. from Cape Cod said.

Should commencement speakers mention the war in Gaza and college protests at their respective graduation ceremony?

Yes, they should mention it

No, they should not mention it

Stick to the key messaging’

Mark Castel, the founder and president of AEI Speakers Bureau, which finds professional speakers for private and podium events in the corporate and education sectors, told a commencement speaker’s goal is to inspire the graduates and celebrate their academic accomplishments.

“The commencement speaker’s job is to talk to the graduates and focus on their accomplishments, on what lies ahead for these kids. That’s the key messaging,” he said in an interview with

Castel was in high school in the 70s and recalls student protests against the draft and the U.S.’s war in Vietnam. He said protesting is important and a privilege granted to those living in a free country like the United States, but that it also has its limitations.

“I don’t think this is the venue for commencement speakers to bring up a very volatile issue,” he said.

Having a disruption and politics-free commencement is particularly important for this year’s graduating class, Castel said, because the students likely graduated from high school during COVID-19 – and without a proper commencement ceremony.

“We need to be respecting different points of view and engaging in productive dialogue. But I don’t think it’s fair to these kids to have graduation disrupted. I think that’s a very dishonest thing to do,” he said.

Instead, he feels speakers should “stick to the key messaging, which is focused on their accomplishments, and what’s ahead in their lives, and bring the joy back to it because they missed out on that four years ago,” he added.

Addressing the conflict head-on

The ongoing conflict has already lead to some schools swapping out speakers last-minute, as was the case for Boston’s poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, who was initially slated to be Concord Academy’s commencement speaker.

Other have opted to renege on their speaking commitments. Colson Whitehead, a Harvard alumni and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, was set to speak at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s graduation ceremony on May 18, but dropped out because of the university’s police response to student protesters.

“Calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act,” he said on the social media platform Bluesky. A total of 130 people were arrested and are being arraigned this week in Eastern Hampshire District Court. The school said that the ceremony would proceed without a commencement speaker.

Lara Jirmanus, an instructor and fellow at Harvard, said colleges should not shy away from addressing the ongoing war or the conflicts on campus. Speakers should mention campus protests and the war in Gaza, even if it causes “a few moments of discomfort,” she wrote in a statement to

“I dream of a future where Palestinians have the privilege to thrive to see their children graduate school, their elders live to see their children graduate. It is precisely because our tax and endowment dollars are paying for Israeli bombs that have flattened Gazas universities and schools that they cannot,” she said.

“What exactly are we trying to protect graduating classes and administrators from?” Jirmanus added.

Below, see what some readers had to say over whether or not commencement speakers should bring up the war in Gaza and campus protests.

Responses have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Should commencement speakers mention the war in Gaza and college protests?


“Commencements are to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduates, not to address political duress.” – Deb G., Methuen

“I’m a firm supporter of the first amendment, but I believe there’s a time and place. College graduation is not about the commencement speakers, it’s about celebrating the achievement of the graduating students.” – Sarah, Chatham

“The students have worked so hard to get to graduation and for them to be overshadowed by these events is really unfortunate not to mention the parents, grandparents, and family who came to graduation in celebration of a milestone.  They don’t deserve to be unwilling participants in a protest.” – J.L.M., Boston

“Regardless of your politics, a college commencement has nothing to do with the war. Making this celebration all about your pet political project is intensely selfish and absolutely undermines whatever message you are trying to convey.” – Brian, Roslindale

“The commencement is about the graduates and their accomplishments. If the speaker can’t keep their political views out of the speech, they should decline the invitation.” – Steve, East Boston


“The commencement speaker should address the conflict if they want to. I don’t think they have a responsibility to do so and if they do address it, it should be done generically to encourage the graduates’ participation in the political process. They shouldn’t get into the specifics of this particular protest. That is not why they are there.” – Christine W., Quincy

“This is a loaded phrase, but it depends on the context. Commencement speeches generally reflect the experience and aspirations of students who are about to make their way into the world. The best of these speeches can help graduates feel proud of their accomplishments at school and also enthusiastic about making a positive contribution to the world. If the Israel-Hamas conflict is relevant to the speaker’s particular narrative, it certainly should be mentioned, as should the protests, again if they are relevant. Yes, it’s volatile terrain. And I don’t want to see these ceremonies disrupted. But they already have been, often with speakers who haven’t mentioned the conflict or campus unrest at all. I don’t think addressing them makes disruption any more likely.” – Ken S., Cambridge

“Commencement speakers should be allowed to speak freely, there’s not ‘yes they should’ or ‘no they shouldn’t’… it’s up to them. Colleges have long been thought of as places to express and discuss ideas and explore different topics through constructive discussion. Commencement should be no different. If administrations want to pull the plug, they can (and probably will exercise) that power. However, free thought and expression at colleges have always been viewed as key ingredients that make college education valuable.” – Matt M.

“I believe each individual, particularly those with a platform to reach larger groups, has an obligation to speak out about the atrocities going on in Gaza and the West Bank. We have a moral obligation to do anything we can to stop this harm.” – P.J.S., Westchester County, New York occasionally interacts with readers by conducting informal polls and surveys. These results should be read as an unscientific gauge of readers’ opinion.

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