Graduation ceremonies begin at USC after weeks of unrest on campus

Four days of commencement celebrations began Wednesday at the University of Southern California following weeks of campus unrest that was highlighted by the arrest of 93 protesters who attempted to occupy Alumni Park, leading to the university's cancellation of its annual main stage graduation ceremony.

The first day of commencement events was mostly quiet. Graduation celebrations began at 8:30 a.m. with a series of doctoral hooding ceremonies at various campus locations, along with a variety of other commencement activities throughout the day.

Some students bemoaned the loss of the main stage ceremony. Zoe Hosley called it a bummer. Another grad said, "I can’t comment, but it’s too bad. Fight on!"

Stephanie Jimenez chose not to attend last year’s graduation ceremony as an undergraduate. She admits she might have skipped again as she graduates with her Master’s. But she still objects to having her choice taken away. "It feels like its lacking some of the excitement when there wasn’t this shutdown."

The campus requires student ID’s to get into campus and for loved ones attending other events a driver's licenses is required. 

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, participants in the only demonstration we saw started gathering on Exposition Boulevard, which was shutdown. LAPD estimated the Pro-Israeli crowd at about 150, with about 
four counter-protesters. The organizer of the event is Sean Feuct, a well known Christian Nationalist and singer. He coordinated the event with local Jewish leaders, but the pro-Israeli protest felt at times, more like a Christian church service, than a typical Pro-Israeli demonstration. 

Additional ceremonies are planned for the rest of the week, with the bulk of the individual school events planned on Friday.

The traditional main stage ceremony, which had been scheduled for Friday and annually attracts more than 60,000 people to Alumni Park, was scrubbed last month amid campus unrest. In its place, there will be a "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. University officials said the event will include "drone shows, fireworks, surprise performances, the Trojan Marching Band, and a special gift just for the Class of 2024."

Each graduate will be eligible to receive up to six tickets for the event. Tickets will be required for entry to that celebration and all commencement events as security remains heightened.

Turmoil over the commencement activities began last month following the selection of Asna Tabassum as this year's class valedictorian. Her pro-Palestine views led to complaints from some critics who contended that some of her postings on social media were antisemitic -- claims she has denied. The university responded by announcing that Tabassum would not be permitted to make a speech at the main stage commencement ceremony -- a move the university's provost insisted was done solely over safety concerns.


That decision, however, prompted an uproar of its own, with groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling it an act of cowardice aimed at silencing a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.

With the uproar intensifying, the university then canceled all "outside speakers" at the main stage ceremony, and canceled plans to bestow any honorary degrees at the event. Filmmaker Jon M. Chu had been scheduled to be the main commencement speaker. Honorary degrees were expected to be presented to Chu, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, tennis legend Billie Jean King and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

The university said it will "confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies."

Days later, 93 people were arrested following a daylong pro-Palestine protest and attempted occupation of Alumni Park, the traditional site of the main stage ceremony. Protesters -- like those in similar actions on college campuses nationwide -- demanded that the university divest from Israeli-tied organizations, cancel Israel-related study-abroad program and issue a public call for a permanent cease fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

The protest and mass arrests led to stepped-up security and limits on who could enter the campus. The next day, the university announced it was canceling the main stage commencement ceremony altogether.

"We understand that this is disappointing; however, we are adding many new activities and celebrations to make this commencement academically meaningful, memorable, and uniquely USC, including places to gather with family, friends, faculty, and staff, the celebratory releasing of the doves, and performances by the Trojan Marching Band," USC officials said at the time.

In the weeks since, another pro-Palestine encampment was established in Alumni Park, and it was allowed to remain in place until early Sunday morning, when police moved in and dismantled it.

As a result, security is likely to be high as the university begins its commencement week. All graduating students and their guests will have to show digital tickets to gain access to any of the ceremonies or other events. Graduates will be able to invite up to eight named guests for the commencement events, except for the Thursday night Coliseum event, which is limited to six tickets per graduate.