Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

USC cancels ‘main stage’ commencement ceremony after protests

By Jaweed Kaleem and Matt Hamilton Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – The University of Southern California announced Thursday 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 universitywide May 10 graduation ceremony altogether, USC aimed to quell the controversy that grew as it dismantled aspects of the ceremony, drawing criticism from pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists nationwide.

“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. 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.,” USC said in its announcement.

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.”

Since citing unspecified security threats as the reason for canceling Tabassum’s speech, USC has faced multiple on-campus protests, including a pro-Palestinian encampment occupied by students calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and divestment from weapons manufacturers with links to Israel. That demonstration led to the Los Angeles Police Department making dozens of arrests. USC joins campuses across the country where conflict has deepened since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7.

University officials had followed their cancellation of Tabassum’s speech by calling off a speech by director Jon M. Chu and appearances on the main stage by honorary doctorate recipients, including tennis star 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 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.

The last time the main USC commencement was canceled was in 2020 after the start of the 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.”

The saga at USC began on 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 done 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.

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.