Universities withdraw invitations to the UN ambassador due to the Gaza conflict

Xavier University of Louisiana became the second school to withdraw an invitation to U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s commencement amid student outrage over the conflict in the Gaza Strip. The move came days after the University of Vermont also canceled Thomas-Greenfield’s commencement speech.

Administrators at both universities cited pressure from students and the community over the Biden administration’s support for Israel in the war with Hamas.

“The vast majority of students want to be able to enjoy a commencement ceremony without disruptions,” wrote Xavier President Dr. Reynold Verret in a letter. He called the university’s decision not to invite Thomas-Greenfield “regrettable” and said it had decided to do so “together with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s team.”

Xavier announced Thomas-Greenfield as commencement speaker on May 5. But three days later, after more than 1,700 people signed a petition calling on the university to rescind the invitation, the New Orleans-based university changed course.

The student-led petition asked the university to “end the politicization of our commencement ceremony” and cited Thomas-Greenfield’s record at the UN. She has previously voted against measures calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Nate Evans, a spokesperson for Thomas-Greenfield, told CBS News: “Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield looks forward to continuing to work with young people on campuses and other forums across the country to inspire the next generation of diplomats, as she recently done in Pennsylvania, Texas and New York.”

The ambassador recently toured a high school in Philadelphia, where she held a school-wide assembly and met privately with a group of Palestinian students.

Last week, Thomas-Greenfield was not invited to speak at the University of Vermont’s commencement ceremony.

In a letter to the university community, Suresh Garimella, president of the University of Vermont, acknowledged demonstrations on campus. “I hear your frustration with foreign policy decisions,” he wrote, adding that the decision to cancel the ambassador’s appearance was made “with regret.”

CBS News has learned that the university formally invited Thomas-Greenfield to speak at its commencement last summer, just months before Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Xavier’s invitation came early this year, well before nationwide protests outbreaks on campus.

A source familiar with the ambassador’s thinking told CBS News that Thomas-Greenfield was undeterred by the demonstrations at both schools and was prepared to make her comments. The source said she is also aware of the threat of protesters disrupting the commencement ceremony, which could hinder the honoring of graduates and their achievements.

Thomas-Greenfield has held various diplomatic positions during a nearly forty-year career in government. At the start of the Biden administration, she was appointed UN ambassador.

Speaking to Dallas station WFAA on Thursday, she delivered a message to protesters on college campuses across the country. “I want the students to know that they are heard. At the same time, we must be clear that they cannot use violence as a means to get their message across,” Thomas-Greenfield said. The commencement ceremony was not specifically asked.

President Biden will address graduates at Morehouse College on May 19. So far, the student protests there have not changed commencement plans at the historically black college in Atlanta.

Camilla Schick and Jane Chick contributed reporting.