USC's move to cancel commencement amid protests draws criticism from students, alumni

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A graduating senior takes photos under the University of Southern California mascot on campus, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. The school has canceled its main graduation ceremony as protests against the Israel-Hamas war continued to intensify. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

LOS ANGELES – The University of Southern California's decision Thursday to cancel its main graduation ceremony, a move that came 10 days after administrators said the student valedictorian who had expressed support for Palestinians would not be allowed to speak, left students and alumni stunned as protests over the Israel-Hamas war continue to spread on campuses nationwide.

“It seems like USC isn’t really listening to their student body,” said Olivia Lee, a 2023 business administration graduate who said she is rethinking whether to recommend the private university to potential students.

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Videos of police officers in riot gear facing off, and ultimately arresting, dozens of protesters on campus left her worried about suggesting her alma mater to teenagers who may join similar demonstrations.

“Could that happen to them?” she said.

The protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict pose a tough test for colleges across the country as administrators seek to balance free speech and open debate against pressures over campus safety.

The USC controversy ignited April 15 when officials said the 2024 valedictorian, who has publicly supported Palestinians, could not make a commencement speech, citing nonspecific security concerns for their rare decision. Days later, USC scrapped the keynote speech by filmmaker Jon M. Chu — a 2003 graduate of the university — and said it would not confer honorary degrees.

By this week, the student protests ignited at Columbia University inspired similar on the Los Angeles campus, with students calling on the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel or support its ongoing military action in Gaza. Ninety demonstrators were arrested Wednesday night. Less than a day later, the university announced it would cancel the May 10 main graduation event -- a ceremony that typically draws 65,000 people to the Los Angeles campus — would not happen this year.

University officials said in a statement they would not be able to process tens of thousands of guests “with the new safety measures in place this year.”

“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," the statement said.

Taylor Contarino, a senior who will graduate with a journalism undergraduate degree next month, said there was “disheartening energy” on campus Thursday morning even before the university made its announcement. The school limited campus access to people with USC identification in the wake of Wednesday's protests.

“I couldn’t help but feel like there was an elephant in the room," she said. “We’re all walking past each other, showing our IDs to security guards.”

Contarino has wanted to attend USC since she was 13 or 14 years old, and she had planned to attend the main graduation event. But she said her work to cover the protests for Annenberg Media, a student-led news outlet, has reminded her of the importance of her major to witness and record history. She plans to return to USC in the fall for her master's degree in journalism.

Lee, the 2023 graduate, said she initially didn’t want to wake up early for the main commencement event last year, but her friends convinced her to go. While students walk across the stage for their diplomas at the smaller school ceremonies — which are still scheduled to occur — she said the big ceremony was worth attending.

“It just made the day of graduation that much more special," she said. “If I was to graduate college again, I would go.”

Lee agrees with the protesters' call for USC to stop investing money in businesses that support Israel.

“We pay so much to be there," she said. "I think that students have a right to know where their tuition money goes and is invested in.”

Joshua Adams planned to return to USC's campus next year with his family to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of receiving his master's degree in journalism. He called the university's recent decisions to limit free speech “upsetting” and said he hoped alumni voices would help sway administrators.

Colleges and universities nationwide, including USC, tout themselves as champions of free speech, he said, but at the same time often shy away from defending pro-Palestinian views.

“We’re at an inflection point where students won’t accept that,” Adams said.

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