Harvard’s governing board overrules faculty, bars 13 students who participated in pro-Palestinian encampment from receiving degrees

Harvard University’s top governing board on Wednesday rejected the recommendation of faculty to allow 13 pro-Palestinian students who participated in a three-week encampment in Harvard Yard to receive their degrees with their classmates.

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University’s top governing board on Wednesday rejected the recommendation of faculty to allow 13 pro-Palestinian students who participated in a three-week encampment in Harvard Yard to receive their degrees with their classmates.

Impacted students will be able to participate in commencement ceremonies Thursday but will not receive diplomas, jeopardizing post-graduation plans.

The announcement came two days after some members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to grant degrees to the 13 students andas the university prepared for the pomp and circumstance of one of the most important days of the academic year. And it follows a fierce debate on college campuses nationwide over the appropriate sanctions for pro-Palestinian demonstrators who set up encampments to protest the Israel-Hamas war.

The decision Wednesday shocked faculty who feel strongly that student protesters are being unfairly punished, largely because of political pressure on university leaders.

“I’m upset,” said Ryan Enos, a professor ofgovernment. “This was pure hubris by the Corporation. To think a bunch of billionaires that visit Cambridge a couple times a year could tell the professors who educate these students that they know better than them who deserves to earn degrees — the audacity is breathtaking. In my opinion, the Corporation is not worthy of leading the university.”

The Harvard Corporation, in a statement explaining its decision, cited the Harvard College handbook, which says that a “degree will not be granted to a student who is not in good standing or against whom a disciplinary charge is pending with the Administrative Board, the Honor Council, or the disciplinary board of another school.”

The students in question are either on probation or suspended. Harvard has not provided a breakdown of the disciplinary actions or what thestudents had allegedly done, saying it cannot comment on individual cases.

The Corporation has faced pressure from conservative politicians, donors, students, and alumni who support Israel to show that the protesters, who repeatedly ignored disciplinary warnings during their encampment, will face serious consequences.

Each semester, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences holds a pro forma vote to approve the list of graduating seniors in what is usually a sleepy meeting that few voting members attend.

On Monday, however, 115 faculty members among the roughly 900 in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences attended, according to Harvard, and an amendment was added to the agenda to grant degrees to 13 undergraduate seniors who learned last week that they would be prevented from receiving their diplomas at graduation because of their participation in the encampment. The measure was approved on a voice vote.

The main pro-Palestinian student group at Harvard assailed the Corporation’s decision. “Today’s actions have plunged the university even further into a crisis of legitimacy and governance, which will have major repercussions for Harvard in the coming months and years,” the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition said in a statement.

The governing body’s move also resonated Wednesday evening on campus following Harvard’s annual Class Day ceremonies.

“The lack of accountability is infuriating,” said graduating senior Jeremy Ornstein, who spoke during Class Day. Ornstein said the student body is divided and added “people feel pain on all sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Stephen Marglin, a professor of economics who has taught at Harvard for 59 years, called the Corporation’s decision “a slap in the face” to facultyand likely to prompt protests at graduation Thursday.

He does not support the pro-Palestinian protests because they have not acknowledged the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed 1,200 and took 250 hostage with the same fervor as the “atrocity of the retaliation by the Netanyahu government.”

Still, he thinks the discipline went too far in preventing students from receiving degrees. The encampment, which included 30-40 tents, was “well within the bounds of what Harvard has tolerated in the past,” Marglin said.

Shortly after the Corporation’s decision Wednesday, Accuracy in Media, the conservative media company responsible for the billboard trucks that firstarrived in Harvard Square in October,featuring student protesters’ photos and personal information, said it was sending another “mobile billboard” to commencement to expose “students who have engaged in antisemitic activities or used antisemitic rhetoric on campus.”

Massachusetts Peace Action,a nonprofit in Cambridge that advocates for disarmament, said it will hold a “solemn vigil for Gaza” outside the graduation.

Pro-Palestinian student protesters expressed shocklast week that some students could be prevented from graduating, after they had dismantled their encampment with the understanding — based on their interpretation of their communications with interim president Alan Garber — that seniors would be allowed to graduate this semester.

In a May 14 email to student protesters, Garber said Harvard would “encourage” the “schools to address cases expeditiously under existing precedent and practice (including taking into account where relevant the voluntary decision to leave the encampment), for all students, including those students eligible thereafter to graduate so that they may do so.”

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain said Sunday that Garber doesn’t have authority over student disciplinary matters, which are under the purview of individual schools within the university. However, in a letter to the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance, Garber said he “strongly supports appropriate disciplinary action for those found to have violated university policies.”

Several faculty members who attended Monday’s faculty meeting said they felt Harvard should uphold the essence of the deal they believe Garber made with students to persuade them to take down the encampment.

“He was as clear as he could possibly be in his communication to students that he was urging leniency,” SteveLevitsky, professor of government, said of Garber. “And then suddenly the [Administrative] Board clearly violates the terms of the deal.”

The board, which is responsible for undergraduate discipline and made up of administrators and instructors, doled out the punishment for the 13 seniors last week. That decision was affirmed by the Harvard Corporation on Wednesday.

The Administrative Board is overseen by Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana. Several faculty members who voted in Monday’s meeting said they believesome board members should have recused themselves from the 13 disciplinary cases related to the encampment because they were also responsible for identifying and taking photos and videos of protesters at the encampment, which Harvard asked them to do.But protesters felt that was violating given many protesters have been doxxed since Oct. 7.

Garber said in a May 6 email to the community that Harvard staffers were yelled at and encircled by protesters when the employees “requested to see IDs in order to enforce our policies.”

“We have also received reports that passers-by have been confronted, surveilled, and followed” by protesters,Garber wrote. “Such actions are indefensible and unacceptable.”

Some faculty members questioned those reports. Harvard closed its gates to the public and to media after students were arrested at Columbia University in April.

The Corporation said Wednesday that it also considered the unfairness “of exempting a particular group of students who are not in good standing from established rules.” Impacted students can now go through an expedited review and appeal process. It is unclear how long the appeal process could take.

Harvard and MIT are so far the only schools in Massachusetts that have moved to prevent students from graduating this semester because of their involvement. Garber has indicated Harvard will not consider divestment from Israel.

Harvard administrators previously told students in emails and through campus signage that “erecting structures, tents, and tables without authorization is a violation” of university rules, adding that students who disrupted normal activities would face disciplinary consequences.

Many within the Harvard community want to see the student protesters held accountable. Steven Pinker, a psychology professor, called the faculty vote on Monday “unfortunate.”

”There’s no coherent policy that would allow students to unilaterally expropriate the university commons and disrupt its functioning for a political cause that many other members of the university community oppose,” Pinker said. “And without sanctions, there’s no way to implement a coherent policy. Universities should encourage debate and deliberation, not forced takeovers and threats.”

Correspondent Alexa Coultoff contributed to this report.

Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.