UMass to student: Tibetan flag not allowed in commencement ceremony



Published: 05-03-2017 11:07 PM

AMHERST — As a first-generation college student, 22-year-old Kalsang Nangpa was thrilled to take part in the University of Massachusetts commencement ceremony next week.

As part of the ceremony, there is a parade of flags from the different nations represented by the UMass student body. Nangpa, a public health major, was excited to carry the flag of Tibet, from which her family fled as refugees.

But that excitement soon turned to disappointment and anger.

Because of a strict policy allowing only Department of State-recognized nations in the flag procession, UMass denied Nangpa’s request to carry the Tibetan flag as part of the official ceremony.

“UMass, I thought, was very invested in social justice and committed to being inclusive, promoting diversity and all that,” Nangpa told the Gazette. “But I don’t see these values reflected in UMass’s decision.”

Though once autonomous, Tibet has been controlled by the People’s Republic of China since the 1950s, and many countries — including the United States — recognize it only as a part of China.

Campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the university doesn’t want to be in a position of determining nation status, and thus maintains a policy of only allowing flags from a list of State Department-recognized nations.

“While we understand and appreciate the disappointment of students who wish to carry flags representing their ethnic, cultural and national identities that are not on this list, we feel that the standard we apply to determine inclusion in our procession of flags is reasonable and equitable,” Blaguszewski wrote in a statement.

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Speaking to the Gazette, Blaguszewski said students and their families at commencement are free to individually express pride in their culture and heritage, including the waving of flags in the crowd.

“That’s free speech, and we welcome that,” he said.

The university’s policy stems from two past incidents in which there was confusion over whether to let students carry their respective flags, Blaguszewski said.

The first incident involved a student from Taiwan, who was allowed to carry the Taiwanese flag in the parade.

The People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan as part of its “One-China” policy, and the State Department does not recognize Taiwanese independence. However, the United States does maintain strong, though explicitly non-diplomatic, ties with Taiwan, and Blaguszewski said Taiwanese students are recognized as Taiwanese in their State Department-issued documents.

Another student previously ran into problems in trying to carry the Iranian flag in the parade. Blaguszewski said university officials debated the issue because of U.S. sanctions against that country, but eventually allowed the student to carry the flag.

In the case of Tibet, however, the university has remained firm: The flag can not be part of the parade of nations.

Nangpa said she doesn’t understand that position, particularly in light of the fact that the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhists’ spiritual leader, was previously invited to speak at the university.

As an activist who serves as president of the university’s Students for a Free Tibet chapter, Nangpa is not easily giving up on her desire to carry her nation’s flag in the parade.

In addition to launching a social-media campaign to overturn the decision, Nangpa has brought her case to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy via email, and even emailed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who will be this year’s commencement speaker.

The Tibetan flag has been banned in China since 1959, and has now become a pro-independence symbol of resistance for Tibetan people. For Nangpa, there is a connection between that history and her current desire to fly the flag at the commencement ceremony.

“I feel like the least I could do is express my identity, and represent my people and my identity, by carrying my flag,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at