Colson Whitehead has withdrawn as a 2024 commencement speaker. Who will be next?

Dan Sheehan

May 10, 2024, 1:28pm

Yesterday afternoon, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys) announced that he would no longer be giving the commencement address at University of Massachusetts Amherst on May 18, citing the administration’s decision to call the police on campus protesters.

“I was looking forward to speaking next week at UMass Amherst,” Whitehead wrote on the social network Bluesky. “But calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act. I have to withdraw as your commencement speaker. I give all my best wishes and congratulations to the class of ’24 and pray for the safety of the Palestinian people, the return of the hostages, and an end to this terrible war.”

With this decision, Whitehead becomes the third American author to withdraw as a university commencement speaker since the crackdown on campus protests began three weeks ago. As we reported last month, in response to the University of Southern California administration’s behavior regarding pro-Palestinian protest on campus, Booker Prize-nominated novelist C Pam Zhang (How Much of These Hills is Gold) and MacArthur Fellow Safiya Noble (Algorithms of Oppression) withdrew as keynote speakers for the USC Rossier’s doctoral and master’s commencement ceremonies. In their open letter to the USC board and administration, Zhang and Noble also called on all other commencement speakers still scheduled to appear at USC satellite ceremonies to join them.

In an effort by college administrators to quell disruption ahead of May’s commencement ceremonies, police have been called to clear encampments at an alarming number of prominent American universities. More than 2,800 people have now been arrested or detained at 62 different colleges campuses across the country (including Columbia, M.I.T., UCLA, USC, UT Austin, and Yale, to name but a few). Just this morning, officers in riot gear cleared an encampment at the University of Pennsylvania, arresting 33 people and charging them with defiant trespass.

At the time of writing, there are several big name authors still scheduled to give commencement speeches at universities where armed police officers have violently removed and arrested student protestors. (There’s also a free speech lawyer; a food charity CEO; a former Vice President of the United States; a number of doctors, athletes, and actors; and, apparently, Elmo. They, however, are not our concern.)

In light of this violent crackdown, the question for those authors now becomes: are you comfortable lending your voice, and your reputation, to a university that sics the cops on its own students for peacefully protesting a genocide?

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