Colson Whitehead Chooses Not to Speak at UMass Commencement Amidst Campus Protest Disappointment

Colson Whitehead, the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has made the difficult decision to step down as the keynote speaker for the upcoming undergraduate commencement at the University of Massachusetts. This decision comes in light of the controversy surrounding the recent arrests of protesters on campus.

In a heartfelt message shared on the social media platform BlueSky, Whitehead expressed his disappointment over the arrests of 132 protesters during a pro-Palestinian encampment.

He had been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to address the graduating class of ’24 at UMass Amherst, having fond memories of his previous visit to the campus. However, he could not ignore what he deemed a “shameful act” of calling law enforcement on peaceful protesters.

Whitehead’s message also conveyed his heartfelt best wishes to the graduating class and his solidarity with the Palestinian people, urging for an end to the ongoing conflict.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski, while confirming Whitehead’s withdrawal, acknowledged the author’s principled stance and expressed regret over the situation. Consequently, the university announced that this year’s commencement ceremony will proceed without a keynote speaker.

The decision follows the events of Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, where arrests were made by multiple law enforcement agencies. In response, the university’s student government declared no confidence in Chancellor Javier Reyes and his administration for their handling of the situation.

Originally slated to be the commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree, Whitehead, a New York City-based novelist and Harvard University graduate, was recognized for his literary achievements, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad.”

Despite Whitehead’s absence, the university remains dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of almost 6,800 undergraduates who will be awarded degrees during the ceremony at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, with an anticipated audience of about 20,000 spectators.

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