Some Xavier University students upset with planned commencement address by UN ambassador

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Xavier University's pick to deliver its undergraduate commencement address has sparked criticism among students who oppose past positions by the U.S. on the war in Gaza.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield is scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. Saturday to graduates of Xavier's College of Arts and Sciences, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. In an announcement, the school described the Louisiana native, who is from Baker and graduate of Louisiana State University, as a “trailblazing Black woman” who forged her own path.

But soon after news of her appearance at the historically Black university spread, students asked the administration to cancel her speech and created an online petition calling for the same. They have also asked university officials to review how commencement speakers are chosen in the future.

“It has come to our attention that the university has chosen to invite a U.N. ambassador who has voted against a ceasefire in Gaza to address our graduating class,” wrote Chase Patterson, Xavier’s student government association president. “This decision sparked significant dismay and disappointment among us, as it contradicts the values and principles that our institution upholds. ... As members of a compassionate and empathetic community, we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow human beings.”

Before presenting a March resolution to the U.N.’s Security Council that called for an “immediate and sustained ceasefire in Gaza,” the U.S. vetoed three other ceasefire resolutions proposed by other countries. In explaining one veto, Thomas Greenfield said that the U.S. could not support ceasefire resolutions that do not mention Israel’s right to self-defense; in explaining another, she said the U.S. could not support a ceasefire until Hamas freed hostages it took during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Since October, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed in Gaza.

Xavier administrators did not immediately respond to questions about whether they would rescind Thomas-Greenfield’s invitation.

Thomas-Greenfield, who has not commented on the Xavier invitation, has served as U.N. ambassador under President Joe Biden since her confirmation in 2021. She also serves as the U.S. representative on the U.N.’s Security Council.

She has spent more than three decades working as a public servant for the U.S. Foreign Service, where she served as the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia and held multiple postings in Switzerland, Pakistan, Kenya, Gambia, Nigeria, and Jamaica.

Thomas-Greenfield faced similar backlash at the University of Vermont, where she was set to deliver the commencement address on May 19. Pro-Palestinian student protesters called for the school to cancel her speech, citing the vetoed ceasefire resolutions. The school announced Friday that she would not be speaking.

Xavier Muslim Student Association President Zaynab Al-Rashed, who will graduate on Saturday, created the petition calling on university administrators to find a new commencement speaker and support calls for a ceasefire. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,600 people had signed it.

Al-Rashed said she met with administrators Monday and was told that the university began the search for a commencement speaker in September before war broke out in Gaza. She said she was told that the decision to keep or cancel the speech lies with Xavier President Reynold Verret, who was out of the country on university business.

“We would definitely hope that the U.N. ambassador herself or the administration reconsider the choice of her speaking at our commencement,” said Al-Rashed, a senior majoring in biology who plans to attend medical school. “We really want this to be a celebratory conclusion to our time at Xavier, and there is concern that having this individual speak takes away from that.”