USC cancels 'main stage' commencement ceremony

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 13: A graduate puts on her cap before posing for a photo at USC's commencement ceremony on Friday, May 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A graduate adjusts her cap before USC's 2022 commencement ceremony. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

USC announced Thursday that it is canceling its main May commencement ceremony, capping a dramatic series of moves that began last week after it informed valedictorian Asna Tabassum, who had been opposed by pro-Israel groups, that she would not be delivering the traditional speech.

In ending the university-wide May 10 graduation ceremony altogether, President Carol Folt aimed to quell the controversy that grew as the school chipped away at core parts of the ritual, drawing criticism from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists.

The cancellation took place amid unrest on university campuses across the nation stemming from the Israel-Hamas war. On Wednesday at a pro-Palestinian encampment at USC, 93 students and off-campus activists were arrested.

"With the new safety measures in place this year, the time needed to process the large number of guests coming to campus will increase substantially," USC said in its announcement. "As a result, we will not be able to host the main stage ceremony that traditionally brings 65,000 students, families, and friends to our campus all at the same time and during a short window from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m."

Read more: Photos: Tensions grow as pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses continue

A university spokesman did not reply to a request to interview Folt, who has not spoken publicly about the cancellations.

At least 23 satellite graduation ceremonies at USC’s schools and colleges will continue as scheduled, in addition to smaller departmental receptions.

"We understand that this is disappointing; however, we are adding many new activities and celebrations to make this commencement academically meaningful, memorable, and uniquely USC, including places to gather with family, friends, faculty, and staff, the celebratory releasing of the doves, and performances by the Trojan Marching Band," USC said in a statement.

The university also announced that it will require tickets for "all commencement events taking place on May 8-11" and direct "all campus access through specific points of entry."

It said that tickets would be limited to eight per graduating student and that they would not be transferable.

"There will be an appeal process if more tickets are needed," said the letter, which added that commencement events would include a security screening "similar to those for attending athletic events at the Coliseum." Guests at the Coliseum enter through a metal detector and their bags are X-rayed. USC also said only clear bags would be allowed at graduation events.

Read more: USC valedictorian’s grad speech is canceled: ‘The university has betrayed me’

Since citing unspecified security threats as the reason for canceling Tabassum's speech, USC has seen a series of on-campus protests, including this week's pro-Palestinian encampment.

University officials had followed their cancellation of Tabassum's speech by calling off a speech by film director Jon M. Chu and appearances on the main stage by honorary doctorate recipients, including tennis legend Billie Jean King, saying they wanted to "keep the focus on our graduates."

Some of the smaller commencement ceremonies will still host keynote speakers, including King, who is scheduled to address Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism graduates on May 10.

King has not responded to interview requests from The Times.

National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, who was also deprived of the chance to receive an honorary degree on the main stage, is scheduled to deliver a May 10 keynote speech to graduates of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

Via an NEA spokeswoman, Price declined an interview request.

Actor and activist Sean Penn will also still give a May 11 address to graduates of the Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, according to his representative.

Read more: LAPD arrests 93 people at USC amid Israel-Hamas war protests

The last time the main USC commencement was canceled was in 2020 after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those graduates participated in online and in-person ceremonies the next year, along with the Class of 2021.

"This is a rather unusual commencement, to put it in obvious terms," said Donal Manahan, a USC biologist who has been the university marshal for the main stage ceremony since 2016. "It's the whole country going through it."

William Tierney, a university professor emeritus at USC's Rossier School of Education and an expert in higher education policy and administration, said he blames Folt for the university's failure to engage "in difficult dialogues."

"This president hasn't even made a statement. She's gone. She's invisible," he said. Instead, he added, "the university has determined it's a dangerous place and locked it down. ... And now we'll cancel the main commencement because it is so dangerous for us to have a dialogue."

"We could protect the Obamas when they came to campus," Tierney said, referring to former President Obama and his wife attending their daughter Sasha's graduation last year. "We could protect the campus at other times. But now it's simply too dangerous? That just fails the leadership test across the board."

USC junior Lawrence Sung said he was disappointed to not have a chance to celebrate his graduating friends at the main stage event.

"This is a massive overreaction," said Sung, who studies international relations. "If USC was to choose the worst option at every step of the way in this controversy, this would be it."

The saga at USC began April 15, when Provost Andrew T. Guzman released a campus-wide letter citing unnamed threats that came after the university announced Tabassum as the valedictorian and a scheduled speaker. Guzman said the attacks were of an "alarming tenor" and "escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement."

Guzman did not say what the threats were or who was targeted. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department told The Times that the agency had no crime reports regarding violent threats targeting Tabassum or the commencement ceremony.

The complaints focused on a link on Tabassum’s Instagram profile to a pro-Palestinian website that said, "Zionism is a racist settler-colonialist ideology," and “One Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel" so that "both Arabs and Jews can live together."

Tabassum has denied she supports antisemitic views and said she is being singled out as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman.

Then last Friday, USC called off an appearance by Chu — the director of “Crazy Rich Asians" — and other commencement honorees. In canceling those events, USC cited "the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main stage commencement program."

In an interview prior to Thursday's announcement of the main stage cancellation, Joel Curran, USC’s senior vice president of communications, said the decision about Chu and honorary degree recipients was made in order to avoid putting them "in an awkward situation" to address the valedictorian controversy or the Israel-Hamas war.

"We are putting them in an awkward situation, difficult situation. There have been a lot of conversations around commencement. We do not want to put them in that position," Curran said.

Last week, 11 members of the Advisory Committee on Muslim Life at USC — more than half the membership — resigned in protest of the decision on Tabassum. Folt had convened the group in mid-2023 amid complaints of anti-Muslim bias on campus.

USC is one of dozens of colleges and universities where tensions have grown in recent weeks over free speech and protest over the Israel-Hamas war, including Columbia, Yale, UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Humboldt.

In its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people and took roughly 240 hostages. Gaza health authorities say Israel’s retaliatory war has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians. According to the United Nations, 2 million Gazans are living in near-famine conditions.

Times staff writers Angie Orellana Hernandez and Jenna Peterson contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.