Thursday, June 20, 2024

USC graduates, families converge on Coliseum to cheer student achievement amid political turmoil

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The USC marching band performs at the “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The moment arrived Thursday night for USC graduates — but not the way the Class of 2024 had envisioned it mere weeks ago.

Weeks ago, the 143-year-old private university proudly trumpeted the details of its annual university-wide commencement, featuring high-profile speakers, distinguished honorees and the usual pomp and circumstance, including speeches from top students.

But that tradition was scuttled amid bitter division over a valedictorian’s cancelled speech, a wave of campus pro-Palestine protests, a school closed to outsiders for days and an attempted encampment that led to 93 arrests. The demonstrations spread to other Southern California campuses from nearby UCLA and Cal State L.A. to Long Beach State on the coast, CSU Fullerton and UC Irvine in Orange County and UC Riverside in the Inland Empire.

Traditionally, more than 60,000 people gather in Alumni Park for the university’s primary graduation event, which draws famous speakers and is broadcast on local TV.

Kelly Choi, a USC masters graduate poses for photos before the start of the “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

In lieu of the traditional on-campus commencement, USC pulled together a university-wide “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration,” next door at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday evening.

Early on, as huge appeared to be descending on the Coliseum, students and their supporters made the best of it, even with overtones of disappointment in the air, memories of the last two weeks still fresh and tight security.

By 10 to 15 minutes after the scheduled 8:30 start of the ceremony, long lines of folks waited to get in as they needed to pass through metal detectors and bag checks.

Punjal Kunvali, an Engineering Management major, said he was glad the program was changed to ensure student safety, even if the danger may be overblown.

“I was just watching it all over the news and was very worried,” he said, explaining that he just got back to campus Tuesday, after the protests had dissipated.

Several parents had the same sentiment, preferring an overabundance of caution over the possibility of putting their kids in danger.

“It’s smart, I get the desire to want to protest and share your view but safety come first,” said Ted Bushelll, a USC parent.

But many students felt the move was unnecessary, with some even saying it soured the ceremony.

“I feel the USC administration did not do a good job in dealing with this situation, it was a poor decision and they should not have canceled the commencement speech from our valedictorian,” said Ryan Killian, an electrical engineering major.

“If they’re going to use student safety as a reason to cancel it, they should be more specific about the danger.”

Graduates, families and friends at the “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Thursday’s event included “drone shows, fireworks, surprise performances, the Trojan Marching Band.

It attended by about 18,500 people, according to TV reports, citing information from USC. There were no reported incidents.

The bulk of USC’s individual school commencement ceremonies, which launched Wednesday without incident, will be Friday with scattered events on the weekend.

Controversy smoldered anew on Thursday, as USC’s Academic Senate, which represents the university’s faculty, formally censured USC President Carol Folt and Provost Andrew Guzman Thursday over their handling of dramatic changes in commencement activities and other responses to campus protests.

According to the Daily Trojan campus newspaper, the senate voted 21-7 in favor of the censure, with six members abstaining. The censure cited “widespread dissatisfaction and concern” regarding decisions made by Folt and Guzman surrounding commencement activities and the pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

The Academic Senate also called for the creation of a task force to investigate and prepare a report on the decisions made by university administrators surrounding the issue, the paper reported.

But, amid all echoes of harsh political strife, L.A.’s iconic sports stadium filled up Thursday with students, families, loved ones, faculty, gathered to rekindled cheers for student achievers with bright futures.

The “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration” promised “drone shows, fireworks, surprise performances, the school’s award-winning Marching Band, and a special gift just for the Class of 2024.”

With scrutiny remaining at top levels, all graduating students and their guests have to show digital tickets to gain access to any of the ceremonies or other events. Graduates will be able to invite up to eight named guests for the commencement events, except for the Thursday night Coliseum event, which is limited to six tickets per graduate.

The day before, despite the recent turmoil, the first day of graduation ceremonies went off without a hitch much to the relief of graduates and their families who were shaken by the school’s decision to cancel its usual commencement.

On Wednesday, the first set of more than 100 planned graduation events took place, which included the Ph.D hooding ceremonies for the schools of engineering, business, education, journalism and arts and sciences. Ceremonies will continue on campus through Saturday.

“I’m very happy and am really proud of myself to graduate from the University of Southern California and very thankful to my parents and my family who always supported me,” said Haonan Yang, a mechanical engineering Ph.D graduate. “I have to share this important moment with my parents.”

The day of calm provided a brief respite to weeks of feuding. Angry words over the commencement activities began last month following the selection of Asna Tabassum as this year’s class valedictorian. Her pro-Palestine views led to complaints from some critics who contended that some of her postings on social media were antisemitic — claims she has denied. The university responded by announcing that Tabassum would not be permitted to make a speech at the main stage commencement ceremony — a move the university’s provost insisted was done solely over safety concerns.

That decision, however, prompted an uproar of its own, with groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling it an act of cowardice aimed at silencing a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.

With the uproar intensifying, the university then canceled all “outside speakers” at the main stage ceremony, and canceled plans to bestow any honorary degrees at the event. Filmmaker Jon M. Chu had been scheduled to be the main commencement speaker. Honorary degrees were expected to be presented to Chu, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, tennis legend Billie Jean King and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

The university said it will “confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies.”

Days later, 93 people were arrested following a daylong pro-Palestine protest and attempted occupation of Alumni Park, the traditional site of the main stage ceremony. Protesters — like those in similar actions on college campuses nationwide — demanded that the university divest from Israeli-tied organizations, cancel Israel-related study-abroad program and issue a public call for a permanent cease fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Bianca Bao holds up a photo of her daughter, Hannah Lee, at the “Trojan Family Graduation Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Lee is a 2024 graduate. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The protest and mass arrests led to stepped-up security and limits on who could enter the campus. The next day, the university announced it was canceling the main stage commencement ceremony altogether.

“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 officials said at the time.

In the weeks since, another pro-Palestine encampment was established in Alumni Park, and it was allowed to remain in place until early Sunday morning, when police moved in and dismantled it.

Staff Writer Clara Harter and City News Service contributed to this report

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