U.S.C. Valedictorian Graduates Without a Speech, but With Cheers


For weeks, Asna Tabassum, the valedictorian at the University of Southern California, has been at the center of a maelstrom that upended the school’s longstanding commencement traditions and left campus leaders scrambling.

School administrators said last month that it would have been too dangerous to let her speak at a schoolwide ceremony after pro-Israel groups condemned the selection of Ms. Tabassum, a Muslim student who had sympathized with Palestinians on social media. She became the target of criticism and harassment.

But at her graduation ceremony on Friday morning, Ms. Tabassum received her degree to cheers and loud applause from students and parents.

In mere weeks, Ms. Tabassum has gone from a relatively obscure undergraduate at the U.S.C. Viterbi School of Engineering to a national symbol of free speech and a voice for the Palestinian cause. She still has critics — a conservative nonprofit paid for a moving billboard near campus this week that attacked her — but has also won over students and academics who felt that she had been unfairly treated by the university.

The applause and praise on Friday were the closest the ceremony had veered toward acknowledging the turmoil of the last few weeks on the private campus. Since the school canceled Ms. Tabassum’s speech, there have been protests over the decision and against the war in Gaza. The first of the demonstrations resulted in a swift crackdown ordered by the school president, Carol Folt, and 93 arrests by the Los Angeles Police Department.

A subsequent protest was allowed to linger on campus for days, a sign that Dr. Folt and U.S.C. leaders had softened their approach. But that was also shut down early Sunday, this time without arrests.

“The world is in angst and it is in pain,” said Yannis Yortsos, the dean of the engineering school, told students on Friday. “International events take place thousands of miles away in different parts of the world, but we feel them here on our campuses. Through it, you demonstrated dignity, moral compass and true grace.”

Some universities have faced protest disruptions during their graduation ceremonies, including on Friday at the University of California, Berkeley, where some law school graduates chanted during speeches.But the engineering graduation at U.S.C. on Friday was drama free. There were no outbursts and no visible signs of protest, aside from a few students who wore keffiyehs, a checkered scarf that has become a symbol of the pro-Palestinian movement.

Still, traces of the turbulence of the last few weeks could still be seen across the campus on Friday. Entrances to the campus were tightly controlled and signs erected along campus walkways warned that the university reserved the right to eject anyone who disrupted graduation ceremonies.

Ms. Tabassum did not give a speech at the engineering school ceremony on Friday and declined to speak to a reporter after the event. Despite the intense focus on her, she seemed like any other graduate, smiling and taking photos with friends, and cheering with fellow classmates when a speaker singled out their degree program.

In the end, Ms. Tabassum may have had the last word. The Daily Trojan, the student newspaper, published what was billed as the speech that she had hoped to give. After initial greetings, Ms. Tabassum blacked out the rest of the contents aside from offering congratulations and thanks.

Shawn Hubler contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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