UMass: No Tibetan Flag In Commencement's 'Parade of Nations'

May 3, 2017

Graduation at UMass Amherst is less than two weeks a way. One senior, a public health major from Medford, wants to carry the Tibetan flag in a parade of flags, but the university says no.

'Unacceptable and it's a form of discrimination'

UMass has a tradition of inviting graduating international seniors to carry the flag of their country in a special part of the commencement ceremony. But the chancellor's office has denied an honors student's request to carry the Tibetan flag, saying that the school allows flags only from countries that are recognized by the U.S. State Department.

"This response I got from the school -- their decision to not allow me to carry my own flag -- is unacceptable and it's a form of discrimination, I feel like," said Kalsang Nangpa, a U.S. citizen who was born in Tibet. 

Nangpa is the president of the UMass Amherst  Students for a Free Tibet. She said she thought the school was a place that values diversity and inclusion.

"I feel like the same thing that's happening in Tibet is happening in my own school," she said.

In China, the Tibetan flag is banned.

Nangpa said previous graduates, including her brother, had tried but didn't receive permission to carry the Tibetan flag. But she said she was still surprised when UMass, with its stated mission to support social justice, said no.

'Prevent the proliferation of flags...from a Palestinian flag to a Confederate'

UMass Amherst spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski says the university understands Nangpa's disappointment and celebrates her heritage. But the school believes the State Department's list is the best standard to follow.

"We think the authority to recognize nation status bests rests with the federal government," Blaguszewski said. "And we don't want to be in a position where we're sort of taking sides in disputes about what determines a country. That's not our role or position."

Blaguszewski said students are allowed to wave flags of their choice during commencement, but not during the official "Parade of Nations."

In an email later, Blaguszewski said he wanted to elaborate from a "First Amendment perspective."

"The reason for the policy is to make inclusion in the procession objective -- not subjective -- and prevent the proliferation of flags that could include everything from a Palestinian flag to a Confederate to a Basque," Blaguszewski wrote. "By applying this standard, we, as a government entity, can maintain what the Supreme Court calls "viewpoint neutrality" – in this case, the matter of defining nationhood."

Senator Warren not getting involved

Nangpa has turned to the commencement speaker, Elizabeth Warren for help, asking the U.S. senator to urge UMass to allow her to carry the Tibetan flag.

We asked Warren's office for comment. A few hours later, her office sent this statement:

“Senator Warren respects UMass Amherst’s application of university policy in this matter. The senator also supports the religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage of the Tibetan people. She is proud of her constituents, including students, who peacefully advocate for the fundamental human rights of all Tibetans.”