U.S.C. Celebrates With No Mention of Protests or War in Gaza

U.S.C. Celebrates With No Mention of Protests or War in Gaza

With fireworks, a marching band, celebrity congratulations and a drone show, the University of Southern California on Thursday tried to smooth over the weeks of tumult that have cleaved its campus and upended its traditional commencement with a hastily assembled party for its graduates.

There were no protesters or any direct mentions of the recent turmoil in the tight one-hour ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Jimmy Kimmel, the late night TV host, said in a videotaped greeting that “this class has been through a lot.”

But he did not get into specifics, and for most of the audience of about 20,000 graduates and their relatives, the evening was notable for its departure from the angst of the past month.

The party was held in lieu of the typical pomp and pageantry-filled commencement at the campus. It took place three weeks after the university canceled a speech by its valedictorian, who is Muslim, which touched off intense campus protests. The school dropped its main stage commencement, saying it could not provide the level of additional security that would be needed.

Despite the pyrotechnics and thundering music, Thursday night’s audience was rather subdued, with much of the 78,000-seat stadium empty. Celebrities, professors and an Olympian wished graduates well, mostly on videos that played on the big screen, giving the ceremony an air of a pandemic-era Zoom call. Much of the action took place in the chilly night sky, where drones spelled out “U.S.C.” and fireworks exploded over Los Angeles as thousands of faces looked up.

The “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration,” as the event was billed, was announced 10 days after the university canceled the main ceremony, saying that it could not ensure the safety of more than 60,000 people.

“I’m just trying to be grateful,” said Princess Isis Lang, 22, who is graduating with a degree in musical theater. She said she was critical of the administration’s decision to cancel the speech but was trying to enjoy what normalcy she could and celebrate with her family.

When the university canceled the speech, the school said there had been emails and other electronic communications warning of a plan to disrupt the ceremony, including at least one targeting the valedictorian, Asna Tabassum.

The school’s president, Carol Folt, has faced scrutiny for that decision, which was delivered after pro-Israel groups condemned Ms. Tabassum’s selection and pointed to a social media post by the student sympathetic to Palestinians. Ms. Tabassum, many of her fellow students and some faculty members said she was being silenced.

In the days and weeks that followed, protesters tried to establish an encampment in Alumni Park on campus to criticize the war in Gaza and the cancellation of the speech. A scuffle between protesters and the campus police eventually led to the school calling in the Los Angeles Police Department, whose officers arrested 93 people and cleared the central campus.

On Wednesday, U.S.C.’s academic senate voted to censure Ms. Folt, citing “widespread dissatisfaction and concern among the faculty” about her decisions over the past few weeks. Many parents and students have been upset by the school’s cancellation of its main commencement ceremony and the high security at this week’s celebration.

“It’s been a mess,” said Juanpablo Sanchez, 21, an acting and cinematography major. Mr. Sanchez was surrounded by eight family members who had flown in from Texas, Arizona and Mexico, and wore matching T-shirts with his name for the occasion. Mr. Sanchez said that his high school graduation four years earlier had been curtailed by the pandemic.

“Maybe this is a little bit of a taste of the real world because a lot of time things don’t go the way we plan,” he said.

Victoria Kim contributed reporting.

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