Two Speakers Boycott USC Graduation After Pro-Palestinian Protesters Arrested

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A pair of celebrated writers scheduled to speak at a University of Southern California graduation ceremony that was shifted online have announced they will not be attending, accusing the school of gravely mishandling student protests against the war in Gaza that have rocked its campus in recent weeks.

The university called off its “main stage” commencement ceremony on Thursday, citing concerns for the safety of the more than 65,000 people who had been expected to flood campus on May 10. The ceremony’s nixing came less than two weeks after the controversial decision to bar Asna Tabassum, its pro-Palestian valedictorian, from speaking at the event.

Instead, the school announced earlier this week, it would break graduation down into satellite ceremonies for its individual colleges.

C Pam Zhang, a prize-winning novelist, and Safiya Noble, a University of California Los Angeles professor, were tapped to give keynote speeches to the graduates of USC Rossier School of Education. But Zhang and Noble formally withdrew on Sunday, publishing a letter they also sent to university officials on Literary Hub.

“To speak at USC in this moment would betray not only our own values, but USC’s too,” they said.

The two said they were “appalled” that the school administration had “refused to meet in good faith” with student protesters; calling in the Los Angeles Police Department to arrest 93 pro-Palestinian protesters for failure to disperse this week; and having “censored” Tabassum with “little explanation or transparency.”

Zhang and Noble said these actions “represent a violent and targeted refusal to allow true diversity of expression to flourish on campus,” saying it was “deeply regrettable” that USC had “turned a time for celebrating its entire student body into an opportunity to punish a small group.”

By sharing their letter publicly, they said, they hoped to compel school officials to “address our concerns, and meet in good faith with student protesters.” They called on the other commencement speakers still set to appear at the more than three dozen satellite ceremonies scheduled to take place next month to join them in their boycott.

“Should our conditions be met, we would consider delivering our commencement speeches as previously scheduled, in order to celebrate deserving graduates and their families,” they said, noting that their withdrawal was “in no way a condemnation of USC’s graduating class, who deserve to be celebrated,” nor of faculty, staff, students, and administrators separate from university leadership.

Zhang’s debut novel, 2020’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, earned her a place on the Booker Prize longlist. She was supposed to speak at the May 8 education school doctoral hooding ceremony, according to the Los Angeles Times. Noble, the co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2021. She was to speak at the school’s May 10 master’s ceremony, the Times reported.

Tabassum, a biomedical engineering major who wears a hijab and is of Muslim and South Asian descent, was told she could no longer speak at USC’s commencement on April 15. University leaders announced the decision to students and staff in an email after pro-Israel groups accused her of antisemitism over a link on her Instagram page. Provost Andrew T. Guzman said that “substantial” but unspecified risks “relating to security and disruption at commencement” had led to the decision, denying that it had had anything to do with restricting freedom of speech.

“I am both shocked by this decision and profoundly disappointed that the University is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice,” Tabassum said in a statement at the time. “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.”

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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