USC tries to manage ‘train disaster’ of a graduation ceremony

Few West Coast colleges can match the pomp and circumstance of the University of Southern California’s graduation ceremonies. Flags fly. Trumpets blare. Tens of thousands of family members from around the world fill the Los Angeles campus, cheering on the new graduates. There are catered luncheons under chandeliers and Very Important Speakers: Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, took the stage last year with the theme song from “Avengers.” before delivering the opening speech.

This week, however, the spectacle was put to the ultimate test, beset by weeks of campus protests and controversy. The Class of 2024 will have no grand commencement on the main stage, no Hollywood executive dispensing wisdom to graduates across the university.

Although small-scale festivities will take place at the university’s 23 faculties and academic units, at least two keynote speakers have publicly withdrawn from the Faculty of Education’s graduation ceremony. Others have quietly backed out at the last minute.

The school of performing arts confirmed Monday that Liza Colón-Zayas, who plays Tina on the FX series “The Bear,” “can no longer join us.” Actor Jaren Lewison, of the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” backed out of his commitment this week to address thousands of graduates at two major convocations for the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the school confirmed Wednesday. Two of the three speakers at the technical school’s graduation ceremony abruptly disappeared from the school’s website.

The leafy campus — normally covered with rows of folding chairs this time of year, as if hosting a mass wedding — is closed to non-accredited visitors behind a system of TSA-style checkpoints. Freedom of movement is strictly controlled during the graduation ceremony. Families of graduates will need special digital tickets to move between locations. Bags are searched and banners, umbrellas, selfie sticks and other equipment that could be repurposed for political protest are seized.

A hastily organized celebration at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will offer a measure of grandeur, but it is unclear how many of the 18,000 graduates and their family members will attend the weeknight event.

“Some of my friends say they just go to the administration to boo,” said Ella Blain, 23, who blamed senior university leaders for disrupting her graduation from the School of Dramatic Arts. A self-described “fourth-generation Trojan” from Pasadena, Ms. Blain, who has spent much of her life fantasizing about her own USC graduation, called this year’s graduation ceremony “a joke.”

As student protests over Israel’s war in Gaza clash with nationwide protests, universities are scrambling to preserve a slice of the age-old rite of passage. In a moment of global conflict, that quest is proving to be a tall order: a ceremony that somehow honors a sea of ​​young people in capes and robes and thousands of their loved ones without violating free speech, stifling cheers or enabling rogue protests.

At some schools, the challenge has been daunting. Over the weekend, protesters disrupted ceremonies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Indiana University in Bloomington and Northeastern University in Boston.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, resigned as a speaker at the University of Vermont’s graduation ceremony amid pressure from student groups objecting to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Arizona’s public universities beefed up security and barricaded fields ahead of this week’s ceremonies. On Monday, Columbia University canceled its main graduation ceremony, leaving only smaller, individual school events.

At USC, where commencement ceremonies begin Wednesday, university leaders are scrambling to hold the school’s renowned graduation ceremony together amid a series of measures aimed, paradoxically, at averting potential conflict and unrest.

In mid-April, USC canceled the commencement speech by its star student, Asna Tabassum, after pro-Israel groups complained about a pro-Palestinian link in her social media bio. Four days later, the university announced it would “redesign the graduation ceremony” and canceled a keynote speech by an alumnus, Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“The provost of USC called me at work,” said Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, who was to receive an honorary degree. “They just said that given all the unrest, they thought it would be best to postpone the honorary degrees, and I said I was completely okay with that.”

The decision only escalated the outcry. Pro-Palestinian students attempted to set up camp on campus days later, and university officials called in the Los Angeles police. The ensuing demonstration ended in the arrest of 93 people, more than a third of whom had no affiliation with the campus. The university announced the next day that it would cancel the main ceremony entirely.

Since then, USC has struggled to control the consequences.

“This has just been a disaster,” said Ms. Blain’s mother, Annette Ricchiazzi, 52, a USC alumna and former university employee, citing the university administration’s “inconsistent and confusing” handling of the cancellations and protests. “A lot of parents are disgusted and upset.”

In messages to campus, President Carol Folt has stressed the university’s respect for free speech and its responsibility to protect students. The messages have alternately announced that protesters would be referred for disciplinary action and that plans for some 47 satellite graduation ceremonies are “well underway.”

And in some corners of the campus of 47,000 students, things are back to normal.

A representative for actor Sean Penn, known for his progressive stances on international issues, confirmed that he is on track to address graduates of the pharmacy school, which has partnered with Community Organized Relief Effort, a nonprofit he co-founded, to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations at Dodger Stadium during the pandemic.

California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, one of the state’s best-known liberal lawyers, remained committed to delivering the keynote address at the law school, according to spokeswoman Merrill Balassone.

Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization that fights against derogatory depictions of Asians in ballet, said he would remain committed to his dance school to spread his message of inclusivity.

And yet, he acknowledged, “it’s a very uncomfortable position to be in.”

In contrast, writers C Pam Zhang and Safiya Umoja Noble, a MacArthur fellow, dropped out as keynote speakers for the graduation ceremonies at the Rossier School of Education — citing the invitation of police to campus, the arrest of dozens of protesters and the decision to censor Ms. Tabassum. And Mr. Lewison, who is Jewish, postponed his keynote appearance for two Dornsife College graduation ceremonies. The college said Wednesday that the new speaker would be Jane Coaston, a fellow at USC’s Center for the Political Future and a contributing writer for The New York Times.

At the technical school where Ms. Tabassum, the valedictorian, will graduate, professors tried to revive her opportunity to speak.

A resolution of the engineering school’s faculty executive council asked her to speak at the graduation ceremony. The school’s dean, Yannis C. Yortsos, did not respond to questions about whether the request would be approved.

And a petition signed by 400 professors and expected to be discussed by the Faculty Senate on Wednesday demands that the university apologize to Ms. Tabassum and also calls for the censure of both Dr. Folt and the university’s provost.

Adding to the drama, the engineering school’s website no longer lists two previously announced graduation speakers: Kevin Crawford Knight, chief scientist at the ride-hailing company Didi Global, and Zohreh Khademi, a Microsoft executive. A spokesperson for the school did not respond to questions about whether Ms. Khademi and Mr. Knight had withdrawn, and neither could be reached for comment.

A university committee had chosen Ms. Tabassum, who is Muslim and of South Asian descent, from about 100 students with an average grade of almost 4.0. Her selection as the graduation speaker led to a bitter backlash from several pro-Israel groups. WHO objected to a pro-Palestinian site she had linked to on a social media account.

The university canceled the valedictory speech, a campus tradition, citing the threat of “disruption.”

Ms. Tabassum, who grew up east of Los Angeles in suburban San Bernardino County, said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” and questioned the school’s motivation. She now faces harassment. An organization called Accuracy in Media, known for doxxing students, set up a Web page calling her USC’s “leading anti-Semite.”

Hossein Hashemi, professor of engineering, said Ms. Tabassum, an aspiring doctor, is widely respected by the faculty. “Right now she probably wishes she hadn’t even been chosen valedictorian,” said Dr. Hashemi, who is leading a campaign on her behalf.

Not all the pomp and circumstance is lost. The last-minute party the school is throwing on Thursday night will feature the Trojan Marching Band, fireworks and drone shows.

“I’m not going to lie, it sounds like a cool event,” said Dustin Jeffords, 37, who is pursuing a master’s degree in communications management. He, his wife, his parents, his in-laws and two siblings plan to be there.

Still, he said that because he came to college late, after his military service, he was especially excited about USC’s big graduation ceremony, with all the bells and whistles, given the sacrifices he had to make.

“As wonderful as these convocation ceremonies are, the big one with the pomp and circumstance is such a big event and something I was looking forward to,” he said. “It’s disappointing to see the finish line disappear before your eyes.”

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