Commencement speakers launch boycott of USC satellite graduation ceremonies

Los Angeles, California - April 18: USC students participate in a silent march in support of Asna Tabassum, whose graduation speech has been cancelled by USC administration at University of Southern California on Thursday, April 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian and offered a traditional slot to speak at the 2024 graduation. After on-and-off campus groups criticized the decision and the university said it received threats, it pulled her from the graduation speakers schedule.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC students march in support of Asna Tabassum, whose graduation speech was canceled by university officials recently. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

When USC President Carol Folt called off the 65,000-attendee “main stage” commencement amid pro-Palestinian protests and anger over the cancellation of pro-Palestinian student Asna Tabassum's speaking slot, USC promised that more than two dozen satellite graduation ceremonies for individual colleges would continue as planned.

But on Sunday, two high-profile speakers scheduled to address graduates of the USC Rossier School of Education said they were dropping out in dismay at the university's actions, including calling in the Los Angeles Police Department to arrest 93 pro-Palestinian protesters — many of them undergraduate students — last week.

“To speak at USC in this moment would betray not only our own values, but USC’s too,” novelist C Pam Zhang and UCLA professor and author Safiya U. Noble wrote to Folt, Provost Andrew T. Guzman and university leaders. “We are withdrawing as commencement speakers.”

Read more: Dueling Gaza protests at UCLA draw hundreds as USC sees peaceful demonstration

The pair, who posted their announcement on the Literary Hub website and also sent a copy to USC officials on Sunday, have called on the dozens of remaining keynote speakers at satellite commencements to join them in a boycott.

“Asna’s removal, the administration’s refusal to engage in dialogue with student protestors, and the decision to invite LAPD forces onto campus, represent a violent and targeted refusal to allow true diversity of expression to flourish on campus,” the letter said.

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

“Our withdrawal is in no way a condemnation of USC’s graduating class, who deserve to be celebrated; nor do we condemn the countless USC faculty, staff, students, and administrators whose views are not represented by university leadership’s authoritarian decision-making,” it said.

Zhang, an award-winning author of "How Much of These Hills Is Gold" and "Land of Milk and Honey," was scheduled to speak at the May 8 education school doctoral hooding ceremony. Noble, a 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and UCLA professor who wrote "Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism," was supposed to speak at the school's May 10 master's ceremony.

The pair's refusal to participate in commencement ceremonies is the latest fallout from USC's controversial April 15 decision to uninvite Tabassum from its main stage.

The university said it made the decision after receiving threats in response to a link on Tabassum's Instagram profile. The link said Zionism was "racist” and that Palestinian freedom would require "the complete abolishment of the state of Israel” so that “both Arabs and Jews can live together.” Pro-Israel groups have called the statements antisemitic. Tabassum has said she is not antisemitic.

Protesters are detained by LAPD officers who were trying to clear the USC campus during a demonstration.
Protesters are detained by LAPD officers who were trying to clear the USC campus during a demonstration against the war in Gaza on Wednesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles)

On-campus protests followed and four days later, the university canceled its "main stage" commencement address by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu and rescinded invitations to honorary degree recipients — including tennis star Billie Jean King — to appear on stage.

Read more: 13 days that rocked USC: How a derailed commencement brought 'complete disaster'

Then, on Wednesday, police arrested dozens of people after pro-Palestinian demonstrators camped in the center of campus and demanded that USC disclose and divest any financial holdings connected to the manufacture of weaponry used in the Israel-Hamas war.

On Friday, USC said the main ceremony was canceled because new security screenings would make it impossible to process crowds in time. It also instituted new ticket limits.

Several high-profile speakers are still scheduled to appear at satellite commencement events. They include Colombian American singer-songwriter Kali Uchis, who will speak May 10 at the USC Thornton School of Music, as well as actor and activist Sean Penn, who will talk the next day to graduates of the Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.