CUNY Law School struggles to find graduation venue after last year’s Israel furor

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By Dan Sears

CUNY Law School is struggling to find a venue for this year’s graduation a year after a student speaker sparked national controversy for criticizing Israel during commencement.

CUNY Dean of Law Sudha Setty revealed in a faculty meeting last week that a plan to host commencement at Hunter College had unexpectedly fallen apart. Now, students are frustrated they can’t make plans to invite friends and family due to uncertainty about capacity at the graduation venue – if the school finds one. The law school had already announced that this year’s commencement will not feature student speakers. The ordeal is another example of how the Israel-Hamas war has rocked education institutions around the city.

“They [Hunter College] have a very complicated set of concerns about hosting our commencement. That’s the summary of it,” Setty said at the Jan. 24 meeting, which Gothamist obtained a recording of.

When asked if she could explain further, Setty replied, “I might be able to do it elsewhere … we are in a very public setting.” She added that she was “surprised” by Hunter’s decision.

A second audience member asked if the reason was related to controversy surrounding Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza. “That has never been raised,” Setty replied.

Setty added that the school is looking into renting private event spaces that would be “two to three times the cost” of a CUNY building.

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Graduation is set for May 23, and around 160 students are in this year’s class.

“Though there were some discussions, Hunter College and CUNY Law never finalized a plan to host this year’s commencement,” Hunter College spokesperson Vince DiMiceli said in an email. Hunter College is considered the crown jewel of the CUNY system.

DiMiceli declined to comment on why the deal fell through. But CUNY Law student Derek Smith had little doubt.

“It’s frustrating. I’m a first-generation student. I spent five years in the military so I could have free law school,” Smith said. “A lot of what we’re seeing here does feel quite retaliatory for student activism for Palestine over the last few years.”

In her commencement speech last year, CUNY Law student Fatima Mohammed thanked the school for “defending the right of its students to organize and speak out against Israeli settler colonialism.” She also went on to say that “Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers.”

Conservative media and politicians seized on the speech, citing it as an example of liberal academia run amok. Mayor Eric Adams criticized the remarks for “negativity and divisiveness.”

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CUNY administrators put out a statement condemning Mohammed’s “hate speech” and then opted against having student speakers at 2024’s commencement, saying they wanted to ensure a “welcoming” ceremony. At a Sept. 13, 2023 faculty meeting, CUNY Law administrators also said the ceremony would take place at Hunter College, according to notes taken by students who attended the meeting.

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in Israel, prompting that country’s ongoing invasion of Gaza that has killed more than 27,000 people.

Many CUNY students, including law school students, joined protests in support of Palestine following the attack. Gov. Kathy Hochul ordered a review of CUNY’s antisemitism and discrimination policies in the weeks afterward.

“We will take on the antisemitism we have seen on college campuses. The problem didn’t begin with the weeks following the Oct. 7 attacks. It’s been growing on a number of campuses. It seemed most acutely in the City University of New York,” Hochul said.

Ongoing protests over the war have taken place at schools and universities. Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators held separate protests at education department headquarters earlier this week, with both sides calling the schools chancellor’s response to the war inadequate. Last month, the NYPD said it was investigating claims that pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University were hit with a potent chemical spray used by the Israeli military.

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CUNY Law did not respond to repeated inquiries.

Students blamed administrators for not handling the controversy better.

“The fact that there is a real chance they may not be able to put together, at a bare minimum, a graduation ceremony for us should be shocking,” said Tara Eisenberg, a CUNY Law student graduating in May. “But CUNY Law has provided this level of service every step of the way.”

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