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USC Canceled Main Graduation Commencement Following Campus Unrest & Arrests

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All eyes are on the University of Southern California following a controversial decision: On April 15, USC announced valedictorian Asna Tabassum will not deliver a previously scheduled speech at the school’s 2024 commencement due to concerns surrounding the student’s pro-Palestinian views amid the Israel-Hamas war. This is the first time the university has banned a valedictorian from the tradition of speaking onstage at its annual graduation ceremony. 

Update: On April 25, USC announced it has canceled its main graduation ceremony on May 10 due to concerns with the “time needed” to process the large amount of attendees (an estimated 65,000 people) considering the new safety measures put in place following the recent unrest caused by the war in Gaza. According to the university, other commencement events are still scheduled to take place, and the university plans on releasing all details by April 30. This decision comes one day after more than 90 students were arrested on campus in conjunction with the protests, per the Washington Post.

Earlier: According to USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman, who released a campus-wide letter to address the decision on April 15, the cancellation of Tabassum’s speech is in response to severe, potentially threatening, backlash against Tabassum’s support of Palestine. “Unfortunately, over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor,” the letter said. “The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

According to The New York Times, Tabassum was selected from among more than 200 students who met the academic qualification, a grade-point average of at least 3.98. From that group, a selection committee of faculty members evaluated more than 100 applicants before landing on Tabassum. According to The Los Angeles Times, backlash against Tabassum’s selection began when she was publicly announced as valedictorian on April 5, with critics calling her out for her pro-Palestinian views on social media, which some see as antisemitic. One on-campus group, Trojans for Israel, issued a statement claiming Tabassum “traffics antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” and called for USC to reconsider their selection. At the time of publication, Tabassum’s social media accounts were private and these claims were not able to be confirmed by Her Campus; her Instagram bio links to a website encouraging people to “learn about what’s happening in Palestine, and how to help.”

In a statement shared online by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Tabassum highlighted her pride to be the school’s valedictorian, as well as her disappointment that the opportunity to speak at graduation has been revoked. “Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all,” she wrote. “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years has abandoned me.”

Tabassum also claimed in her statement that she met with Guzman, as well as USC’s Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and Risk Assurance, Dr. Erroll Southers, on April 14 — the day before the school canceled her speech — to discuss possible safety concerns surrounding her speech. She claimed she was told the school did not plan to increase its security protections and questioned the motivations of the decision to cancel her speech.

“Because I am not aware of any specific threats against me or the university, because my request for the details underlying the university’s threat assessment has been denied, and because I am not being provided any increased safety to be able to speak at commencement, there remain serious doubts about whether USC’s decision to revoke my invitation to speak is made solely on the basis of safety,” the statement said. (This is in contrast to Guzman’s letter, which stated, “To be clear: This decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. … The issue here is how best to maintain campus security and safety, period.”)

While clearly upset by the decision, Tabassum closed her statement with a note to her fellow USC students: “As your class valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box — to work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred. I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning.”

Her Campus reached out to USC and Tabassum with requests for further comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

This story was originally published on April 17; it was updated on April 19.

Addie Whightsil is a Public Relations student at the University of Oklahoma. Beyond academics, Addie's interests extend to the simple pleasures in life. She has an undeniable affection for juice, savoring every drop of its fruity goodness. Her fondness for Jellycats, those irresistibly huggable stuffed animals, adds a touch of whimsy to her daily life. However, what she really loves is sharing personal stories and life lessons for the internet to read.