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Harvard student speaker Shruthi Kumar goes off-script to criticize university for penalizing her peers


Cambridge, MA, May 26, 2024: An Indian American Harvard University student dramatically went off-script during her student address on Thursday morning, sharply criticizing the school for penalizing more than a dozen of her peers for their activism.

Shruthi Kumar, the selected senior speaker for the English address, deviated from her prepared speech titled “The Power of Not Knowing” to deliver a scathing rebuke of university leaders. Midway through her speech, she pulled out a piece of paper with off-script remarks from her sleeve.

“As I stand here today, I must take a moment to recognize my peers—the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 that will not graduate today,” Kumar said, referencing the students who were barred from the ceremony due to sanctions they received for participating in pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

Expressing her dismay, Kumar continued, “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and their right to civil disobedience on campus. The students have spoken. The faculty have spoken. Harvard, do you hear us?”

Her statement was met with a standing ovation from the audience, including some faculty members. Kumar’s remarks also touched on the conflict in Gaza, her personal experience of being doxxed for her views, and what she described as ongoing assaults on free speech and expression.

Kumar’s prepared speech highlighted the theme of uncertainty and the power of not knowing, reflecting on her journey from Nebraska to Harvard as the first in her South Asian immigrant family to attend college in the United States. She spoke about the value of acknowledging what one doesn’t know and how this mindset can lead to growth and empathy.

“I grew up in the Great Plains of Nebraska alongside cattle ranches and cornfields as the eldest daughter of South Asian immigrants. I was the first in my family to attend college here in the US,” Kumar shared. “There was a lot I didn’t know… The words ‘I don’t know’ used to make me feel powerless… But from Nebraska to Harvard, I found myself redefining this feeling of not knowing.”

Kumar also addressed the broader context of their collective experiences as the class of 2024, noting significant moments of uncertainty such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse affirmative action. She emphasized how these events shaped their time at Harvard and their understanding of navigating the unknown.

“Our class has experienced more than our fair share of the unknown,” she said. “This semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable, leaving our graduations uncertain.”

An Atlanta mother who was present at the commencement said that the Harvard Corporation went back on their word and sanctioned the 13 students the night before graduation, even though they had earlier agreed to let them walk if the encampment was removed from the yard.

Kumar’s impassioned critique came in the wake of widespread protests at Harvard’s commencement, triggered by the university’s decision to prevent the 13 students involved in pro-Palestinian demonstrations from participating in the graduation ceremony.

Earlier that morning, silent protesters held up a banner highlighting the plight of those in Gaza and showing solidarity with the sanctioned students. In contrast, pro-Israel counterprotesters took to the skies, flying planes that displayed U.S. and Israeli flags alongside a “Jewish Lives Matter.US” slogan.

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