Sunday, June 16, 2024

On eve of altered graduation celebrations, many USC grads feel let down

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At USC this week, gowns will be donned, caps will be tossed, but the university’s traditional 65,000-person commencement ceremony will not take place due to security concerns stemming from simmering campus tension over the Israel-Hamas war.

This decision has been met with praise by some, outrage by others, and dismay by many seniors at USC who were also unable to participate in traditional high school graduation ceremonies because of COVID-19.

“College is really a huge occasion that should be celebrated and the fact that a huge part of it was taken away from us is really devastating,” said Greta Cox, a senior at USC. “When they announced the cancellation, I was in class and several students burst into tears. That was really hard to see.”

Still, four days of altered commencement events will begin Wednesday on a campus still raw following weeks of turmoil, first ignited by the university’s mid-April decision to not allow its pro-Palestinian valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, to deliver a commencement speech, and further enflamed by LAPD’s arrest of 93 pro-Palestinian protesters at USC on April 24.

It all led to the university’s cancellation of its annual main stage graduation ceremony.

Starting Wednesday, graduates will still be able to attend their school’s respective ceremonies, where they will be able to walk across a stage and receive their diplomas.

The graduation celebrations will begin at 8:30 a.m. as a series of doctoral hooding ceremonies commence on an array of campus locations. They’ll coincide with various activities throughout the day.

Additional ceremonies are planned for the rest of the week, with the bulk of the individual school events planned on Friday.

Then, in lieu of the standard on-campus commencement ceremony — which annually attracts more than 60,000 people to Alumni Park — they will have the opportunity to gather for a university wide “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday evening, beginning at 8:30 p.m.

University officials said the event will include “drone shows, fireworks, surprise performances, the Trojan Marching Band, and a special gift just for the Class of 2024.”

Each graduate will be eligible to receive up to six tickets for the event.

But security will be tight through the week.

Those attending on-campus graduation events will be required to pass through airport-style security to enter campus. They will also be required to show their event ticket and bring possessions in clear bags only.

Similar protocols will be in place for Thursday night’s event.

Fellow students on Tuesday echoed Cox’s disappointment over the cancellation.

Taylor Clanton, a senior, said she was disappointed when she first heard the news, but has since moved on and now feels mainly frustrated by what she perceives as the administration’s tacit blame of protesters.

“I think USC is scapegoating a lot of people in the process of it, rather than just saying like, ‘we don’t want to do this’,” she said. “I think that’s what’s more frustrating than the ceremony being canceled in general.”

In her opinion, USC has significant resources to ensure security on campus, and administrators could figure out a way to hold the traditional ceremony if they wanted to.

This sentiment was echoed by Cox who said, “with all these protests, the amount of LAPD and DPS (Department of Public Safety) they put on campus, it made me think: wait a minute, I feel like they definitely have those resources.”

“I feel like they were kind of dodging the real reason behind it,” she added, “and I would rather just have an honest and transparent reasoning instead of saying that it was a security measure.”

Luke Bucaro, a junior, said he holds little trust for the school’s administration and feels like there are external forces influencing USC President Carol Folt’s handling of protests and graduation.

“I think USC is such a privileged, rich institution, where of course there are people pulling her strings behind closed doors,” he said.

He is also upset by what he perceives as Folt’s efforts to repeatedly shut down protest on campus.

“I don’t respect her as the president of USC, I think she should step down,” he said.

Folt said the decision to clear the encampment was necessary to prioritize safety and prevent disruption on campus, in a Sunday morning email to the community.

“When free speech protests devolve into illegal occupations, violating the rights of others, we must draw a line,” she wrote. “The occupiers repeatedly chose to ignore university policies designed to benefit everyone, and to break the law. We needed to act quickly to protect the rights of our 80,000 students, staff, and faculty.”

Omad Azadpour, a graduate student at the USC Marshall School of Business, said he was more upset by the university’s decision to cancel Valedictorian Tabassum’s speech than he was by the subsequent cancellation of commencement.

“We live in a country where free speech is in our constitution, I do believe that valedictorian should have a platform to be able to speak,” he said. “We are given that freedom as American citizens and I do believe that we should be able to uphold that, especially in a college setting.”

At the same time, he feels that threats to security are a valid reason for nixing the university wide commencement.

“If it comes to the point having to choose security over a commencement, I think we should always err on the side of safety more than anything,” he said. “I could see this as the school doing what it needed to do and hopefully, the (business school) graduation ceremony goes according to plan.”

City News Service contributed to this article.

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