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USC graduation takes place amid heightened security and a standing ovation for canceled valedictorian

The crowd inside USC’s Galen Center erupted for an extended period of time. symphony of applause Friday as Asna Tabassum — the Muslim valedictorian whose speech was canceled by university officials amid controversy over his pro-Palestinian views – walked across the stage to accept his diploma at the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony.

Tabassum’s entire biomedical engineering class, as well as a few spectators, stood to applaud as she left the stage and walked down the aisle to her seat. “Asna, I love you!” » shouted a spectator from the stands. Her crimson graduation sash was adorned with her academic achievements — including her minor in genocide resistance and her extracurricular activities — and the phrase “Praise be to God” written in Arabic.

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends Viterbi School of Engineering graduation

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

As the crowd roared, she turned and laughed, raising her hand to her heart — a moment of joy at the university, which has been racked by tension and disappointment over upended graduation plans . Similar campus-wide satellite ceremonies at individual schools “went smoothly,” a university spokesperson said.

“Happy, festive and undisturbed,” said Joel Curran, senior vice president of communications.

USC President Carol Folt canceled Tabassum’s commencement speech last month after the university received threats related to a pro-Palestinian link on her Instagram account. Pro-Israel groups said the linked website was anti-Semitic because it contained the words: “A Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation and the complete abolition of the State of Israel” so that “Arabs and Jews can live together.” Tabassum said she was not anti-Semitic.

USC graduates smile together in black robes, mortarboards and sashes in the university's cardinal and gold colors.

USC students attend the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Amid continued unrest over campus protests, Folt canceled the Main Stage opening ceremony, which would have taken place Friday, an event that typically draws about 65,000 people to the Los Angeles campus.

After students set up a pro-Palestinian encampment and demanded that USC end its financial ties to Israel, Folt and his team called the Los Angeles police and 93 people were arrested. On Sunday morning, police cleared a second encampment, but no arrests were made.

“The world is anguished and suffering. International events take place thousands of miles away, in different parts of the world, but we feel them here on our campuses. Through this, you have demonstrated dignity, moral compass and true grace,” Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, told the crowd of graduates Friday.

Asna Tabassum’s name is pronounced during the graduation ceremony at the Viterbi School of Engineering. (Angie Orellana Hernández / Los Angeles Times)

“You have demonstrated your reliability, qualities that bode well for the future, as you will be asked to provide solutions to major challenges, many of which will have a social dimension,” he said.

At a student recognition awards ceremony the day before, Tabassum also received a long, loud ovation from his peers. She laughed and pretended to look at her watch while the applause continued.

Friday’s individual school ceremonies, while celebratory, carried the weight of the past few difficult weeks on the USC campus.

The sprawling campus resembled a fortress Friday morning with strict ticketing, several gated entrances and fences surrounding and blocking access to green spaces, apparently to prevent encampments. In the quad near Doheny Library, where graduation traditionally takes place on the main stage, the lawns were instead cut off by fences demarcating lounges and tables for specific graduation events.

A crowd of USC graduates, one of them giving the "Fight" hand gesture, in black robes and mortarboard hats

USC students attend the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Guests had to pass through security checks and metal detectors and carry their belongings in clear bags. Since the sweep of the encampments Sunday, officers from several law enforcement agencies have been stationed in the center of campus.

At the entrance to one campus, more than 100 people – including graduates in black robes and crimson sashes – lined up to pass through checkpoints. USC conferred 19,000 degrees during Friday’s series of ceremonies.

The standing ovation for Tabassum – and the many ceremonies that took place on campus amid cheers and applause as graduates’ names were called – broke the air of disappointment many felt as the ceremonies approached modified.

Tabassum released a form of her speech to student media at 8 a.m. Friday, around the time she was scheduled to speak at the abandoned ceremony on the main stage.

“President Folt, Provost (Andrew) Guzman, faculty, staff, families and classmates of the Class of 2024: It is my honor to stand before you today as valedictorian of your class.

“I am filled with gratitude to have the privilege of doing this,” he said before being interrupted by several blocks of blacked-out text, symbolizing how she was silenced.

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum is mentored by fellow students in soft focus

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Congratulations, class of 2024,” he ends, before other blackened words. “THANKS.”

Friday morning at USC Hillel, about 50 graduates and 200 other guests gathered for a Jewish-centered graduation ceremony.

“What a Four Years You’ve Had,” actress and “Jeopardy!” alumna » Host Mayim Bialik told the crowd, in a surprise speech broadcast on video screens.

“You’re the one we’re worried about,” she said, referring to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during their senior year of high school and freshman year of college.

Speakers highlighted the painful year that Jews around the world and at USC have experienced.

“This moment is not an end but a beginning,” Leah Hochman, associate professor of Jewish thought at USC, told those gathered. She urged them to live a life of integrity.

“Teach others. Chat with them. Listen to them. Come back in a few years and show us what you’ve got,” she said.

Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC, said that “in many ways, this has been perhaps the most difficult year for Jewish life on campus.”

“And yet, on the other hand, in my 16 years here, I have never seen a more vibrant, engaged and passionate Jewish community on campus,” Soni said.

Justin Korn, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in interactive media and game design from the School of Cinematic Arts, said it “was important to come here and replace the feeling I had when they canceled the big “, that is to say the beginning of the main scene.

“It was a little disappointing, but we’re here together now,” Korn said.

Spectators cheer and take photos as fireworks go off at "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at the Colosseum

Fireworks are set off Thursday during the “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration” at the Coliseum. The traditional ceremony on the main stage at Alumni Park was canceled due to unrest on campus.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this week, Folt and Guzman were censured by the Academic Senate, a body of USC faculty representatives. Members cited “widespread discontent and concern among faculty regarding administrative actions and decisions surrounding the protests and the opening of classes.”

Folt defended his actions and said in an interview with The Times that campus security was his “north star.”

“For me, I have a very clear North Star: that I am the person at the university, no matter how complex the problem is and how empathetic I am with everyone involved – which has been true for me – I still have to ultimately sit down and say, “What can I do to keep my campus and my colleagues as safe as possible?”

A campus spokesperson said Folt was “traveling all over campus (Friday) to meet with graduates and families.” She also helped present an honorary diploma to tennis star Billie Jean King.

Much of the uncertainty of previous weeks remained just below the surface at Thursday night’s alternative graduation party, dubbed the “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The event was billed as an “electric atmosphere” – capped at six tickets per graduate – with a drone show, fireworks and a “special gift” for the class of 2024: a hat from the university clothing brand by rap star Travis Scott. The university had billed the event as a “Southern California-style” celebration to make up for the loss of the main stage ceremony with a valedictorian, commencement speeches and the presentation of honorary degrees.

A USC student in graduation attire is partially silhouetted near a red curtain.

A USC student waits for his name to be called Friday during graduation from the Viterbi School of Engineering at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Annette Ricchiazzi was on campus Friday for her daughter’s graduation from the School of Drama. She was able to bring her immediate family to the event thanks to the four tickets her daughter received. With the main stage ceremony canceled, grandparents and other family members were not in attendance, she said.

“It’s definitely a different start, but we’re making the best of it,” said Ricchiazzi, a USC alumna. She attended the gathering at the Coliseum Thursday evening and said it was “strange.”

“It was good for what it was, as a spiritual or motivational thing. It was nice. The students and staff clearly put in the time and effort,” she said. “But it was like putting a bandage on a stab wound.”

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.