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USC Tries to Save Its Graduation After Campus Protests and Arrests

Few West Coast universities rival the pomp of the University of Southern California’s commencements. Flags fly. Trumpets blare. Tens of thousands of relatives from around the world fill the Los Angeles campus, cheering for newly minted alumni. There are catered luncheons under chandeliers and Very Important Speakers: Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, took the stage last year to the “Avengers” theme song before delivering the commencement address.

This week, however, the pageantry has been sorely tested, barraged by weeks of campus protest and controversy. The Class of 2024 will have no grand main-stage commencement, no Hollywood executive dispensing wisdom to graduates from across the university.

While smaller celebrations will go on at the university’s 23 schools and academic units, at least two keynote speakers have publicly withdrawn from the school of education’s commencement, and others have quietly pulled out at the last minute.

The school of dramatic arts confirmed Monday that Liza Colón-Zayas, who plays Tina on the FX series “The Bear,” “is no longer able to join us.” The actor Jaren Lewison, of the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” is rethinking his commitment to address thousands of graduates at two large commencements for the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, according to a representative who spoke on condition of anonymity earlier this week. Two of three speakers at the engineering school’s ceremony disappeared abruptly from the school’s graduation website.

The verdant campus — ordinarily covered with rows of folding chairs at this time of year, as if for a mass wedding — has been closed to noncredentialed visitors behind a system of T.S.A.-like checkpoints. Movement will be tightly controlled at commencement. Families of graduates will need special digital tickets to move among venues. Bags will be searched and banners, beach umbrellas, selfie sticks and other equipment that might be repurposed for political protest will be confiscated.

A hastily arranged party at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will offer some semblance of the usual grandeur, but just how many of the 18,000 graduates and their relatives will attend the weeknight event is unclear.

“Some of my friends say they’re just going to go and boo the administration,” said Ella Blain, 23, who blamed senior university leaders for upending her graduation from the School of Dramatic Arts. A self-described “fourth-generation Trojan” from Pasadena, Ms. Blain, who has spent much of her life imagining her own U.S.C. commencement, called this year’s graduation “a joke.”

As student protests over Israel’s war in Gaza collide with commencements around the country, universities are scrambling to preserve some shred of the time-honored rite of passage. In this globally conflicted moment, that aspiration is turning out to be a tall order: a ceremony that somehow honors a sea of capped-and-gowned young people and thousands of their loved ones without violating free speech, stifling jubilation or enabling rogue protests.

At some schools, that challenge has been daunting. Last weekend, demonstrators disrupted ceremonies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Indiana University at Bloomington and Northeastern University in Boston.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dropped out as the University of Vermont’s commencement speaker under pressure from student groups that objected to the Biden administration’s support of Israel. Arizona’s public universities ramped up security and barricaded fields in advance of this week’s ceremonies. On Monday, Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony, leaving only smaller, individual school events.

At U.S.C., where commencement ceremonies are set to begin on Wednesday, university leaders are straining to hold the school’s renowned graduation together amid backlash to a series of moves that were aimed, paradoxically, at heading off potential conflict and unrest.

In mid-April, U.S.C. canceled the speech by its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, after pro-Israel groups complained about a pro-Palestinian link on her social media bio. Four days later, the university announced that it was “redesigning the commencement” and canceled its keynote speech by an alumnus, Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“The provost at U.S.C. called me at work,” said Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, who had been slated to receive an honorary degree. “They just said that, given all the turmoil, they thought it was best to postpone the honorary degrees, and I said I completely agreed.”

The decision only escalated the uproar. Pro-Palestinian students tried to set up an encampment on campus days later, and university officials summoned the Los Angeles police. The ensuing demonstration ended in the arrest of 93 people, of whom more than a third were unaffiliated with the campus. The university announced the next day that it was canceling its main commencement entirely.

Since then, U.S.C. has struggled to manage the fallout.

“This has just been a train wreck,” said Ms. Blain’s mother, Annette Ricchiazzi, 52, a U.S.C. alumna and former university employee, referring to the university leadership’s “inconsistent and confusing” handling of the cancellations and protests. “Many parents are disgusted and up in arms.”

In messages to the campus, President Carol Folt has underscored the university’s respect for free speech and its responsibility to protect students. Missives have alternately announced that protesters would be referred for disciplinary action and that plans for some 47 satellite commencement ceremonies are “in full swing.”

And normalcy has prevailed, in some corners of the 47,000-student campus.

A representative of the actor Sean Penn — known for his progressive stances on international issues — confirmed that he remained on track to address graduates of the pharmacy school, which worked with Community Organized Relief Effort, a nonprofit that he co-founded, to distribute Covid-19 vaccinations at Dodger Stadium during the pandemic.

Justice Goodwin Liu of the California Supreme Court, who is one of the state’s best-known liberal jurists, remained committed to delivering the keynote address at the law school, according to Merrill Balassone, a spokeswoman.

Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization that pushes to eliminate demeaning depictions of Asians in ballet, said that he would keep his commitment to the school of dance to promote his message of inclusion.

And yet, he acknowledged, “it’s a very uncomfortable position to be in.”

By contrast, the writers C Pam Zhang and Safiya Umoja Noble, a MacArthur fellow, dropped out as keynote speakers for the commencement ceremonies at the Rossier School of Education — citing the invitation of police to campus, the arrest of dozens of protesters, and the decision to censor Ms. Tabassum.

At the engineering school, where Ms. Tabassum, the valedictorian, will be graduating, professors were trying to resurrect her chance to speak.

A resolution by the executive council of the engineering school’s faculty asked that she address its commencement ceremony. The school’s dean, Yannis C. Yortsos, did not respond to questions about whether the request would be approved.

And a petition, signed by 400 professors and expected to be discussed by the faculty Senate on Wednesday, demands that the university apologize to Ms. Tabassum and also calls for the censure of both Dr. Folt and the university provost.

Adding to the drama: the engineering school’s website is no longer listing two previously announced graduation speakers: Kevin Crawford Knight, chief scientist for the ride-hailing company Didi Global, and Zohreh Khademi, a Microsoft executive. A spokesman for the school did not respond to questions about whether Ms. Khademi and Mr. Knight had withdrawn, and neither of them could be reached for comment.

A university committee had picked Ms. Tabassum, who is Muslim and of South Asian ancestry, from about 100 undergraduates with near 4.0 grade point averages. Her selection as graduation speaker sparked a bitter backlash from several pro-Israel groups. who objected to a pro-Palestinian site that she had linked to in a social media account.

Citing threats of a “disruption,” the university canceled the valedictory speech, a campus tradition.

Ms. Tabassum, who grew up east of Los Angeles in suburban San Bernardino County, said in a statement that she was “profoundly disappointed” and questioned the school’s motivation. She now faces harassment. An organization called Accuracy in Media, known for doxxing students, put up a web page calling her U.S.C.s “leading antisemite.”

Hossein Hashemi, a professor of engineering, said that Ms. Tabassum, an aspiring physician, is widely respected by faculty. “At this point, she probably wishes she was not even elected as valedictorian,” said Dr. Hashemi, who is leading a campaign on her behalf.

Not all the pomp has been lost. The last-minute party being thrown by the school on Thursday night will include the Trojan Marching Band, fireworks and drone shows.

“Not going to lie, it sounds like a cool event,” said Dustin Jeffords, 37, who will receive a master’s degree in communications management. He, his wife, his parents, his in-laws and two siblings are planning to be there.

Still, he said, having come to college late, after military service, he had been especially excited about the big U.S.C. commencement, with its bells and whistles, given the sacrifice that earned it.

“As great as these convocation ceremonies are, the big one with the pomp and circumstance is such a big deal and something I was looking forward to,” he said. “To have the finish line disappear in front of your eyes is disappointing.”

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