Hey, President Folt! Remind Us Again Why You Fight On.

One of the more common derogatory acronyms for the University of Southern California is the University of Spoiled Children.  Per US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT, the average annual cost for a student’s tuition, room and board and books is approxmiately $82,500, which gets reduced to an average of about $40,000 after need-based aid.  That’s for both in-state and out-of-state residents.  So it’s easy to see how outside observers might pin that monicker on them.

I’d offer a more apropos one these days could be the University of Suppressive Chiefs.

Full disclosure:  I have many hard-working and decent friends who are proud USC alumni, long removed from the current climate that has placed this campus squarely in national headlines.  And definitely far removed from the sort of head-scratching decisions that have been made by school president Carol Folt that culminated Friday with the controversial and to many heartbreaking decision to deny students the joy and hoopla of a big time graduation.

As has been widely reported, the roots of this morass were sown in March, when it was joyously announced that the Class of ’24 valedictory address would be delivered by a young woman named Asna Tabassumon a hijab-wearing Muslim daughter of Indian immigrants, described in a Saturday LOS ANGELES TIMES piece authored by the tag team of Jaweed KaleemAngie Orellana Hernandez and Matt Hamilton as a hijab-wearing Muslim daughter of Indian immigrants…A biomedical engineering major with a passion for social justice who minored in “resistance to genocide”.  In other words, per the Times’ troika, just the kind of student USC has aimed to attract and has celebrated in ads for the university.  

Folt seized upon the opportunity for a photo op when Tabassumon and others were celebrated in an Academic Honors Convocation where she remarked, per USC TODAY, “I’m looking at a roomful of multi-hyphenates” and added “students inspired her because they were “expanding that personal search for meaning to include something very important: benefiting humanity.”

That didn’t sit too well with a few pro-Israel groups within the USC community.  Per the TIMES, an April 9 Instagram post from groups with names like WE ARE TOV (good in Hebrew) and ISRAEL WAR ROOM cryptically asked “What will she say at the podium?”.  Apparently, Instagram was also the trigger for this concern, citing a link in Tabassumon’s profile to a “Free Palestine” site.  Ironically, it became apparent that neither Folt nor provost Joel Guzman had been on the site themselves, or perhaps they may have found another less triggering poster child for their optics–perhaps not as deserving as Tabassumon, but certainly less incideniary.

At no point has Tabassumon herself seized upon her newfound celebrity to personally speak out, nor even offer support for the actions going on elsewhere around the country, particularly at schools in New York City like Columbia University.  Nor did she indicate she would even address these topics in her speech.

But at a school where top donors and honorees include the likes of the Annenberg family and Steven Spielberg, it’s not too difficult to infer that perhaps Folt and company suddenly had more parochial concerns than personal inspiration.

So it was not all that surprising that on April 15 it was announced that Tabassumon would not appear on stage after all, which the university blamed on “security concerns”.  The TIMES’ threesome reinforced the reality checks that (t)he university has not provided more details about the nature of the threats, and the LAPD said it had not received reports of threats to Tabassum or the commencement.  But in a world where the phrase “utmost of caution” has become de rigeur, any such reality checks become relegated to second position.

That apparently brought out scenes which had heretofore been limited to more Eastern schools on April 18, with hundreds marching on campus in support of Tabassumon.  That then led to this announcement:

On April 19, the “main stage” commencement was diminished further when the university canceled an address by filmmaker Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians.” It also nixed the awarding of honorary degrees at the ceremony to recipients including tennis star Billie Jean King. (Communications SVP Joel) Curran said the university didn’t want to put outside guests in an “awkward situation” where they would feel pressured to speak out about Tabassum or take sides in the Israel-Hamas war. A spokeswoman for the USC School of Cinematic Arts, which helped recruit Chu, cited “security concerns.”

Again with the security concerns.  For a school that regularly squeezes well north of the graduation ceremony’s projected 65,000 attendees into the crumbling Los Angeles Coliseum next door when there’s a big football game, the school is not exactly clueless about how to deal with security.

As the TIMES further recounted, while tensions on both sides continued to mount– The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations had gotten involved, offering assistance to Tabassum…The USC Chabad Jewish center called out the university for blaming security while accusing it of failing to address questions of antisemitism head-on in a time of rising anti-Jewish hatred– this is how USC’s president chose to spend her time:

The next night, Folt appeared at a $550-per-person alumni gala in a Fairmont Century Plaza ballroom. In a brief address, she recognized attorney, investor and philanthropist Charles Griffin Cale, who was awarded USC’s highest alumni achievement prize. The president did not discuss the speech cancellation.

“Chuck” Cale, as the USC website describes him, and his wife Jessie have been lauded for their generosity to USC athletics.  Figuring somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 people attended said gala, a conservative estimate of how much cache Folt toddled home with is north of $100,000.

Which, coincidentally, per Las Vegas’ KLAS-TV website, is in the ballpark of the $179,863 tab the Nevada National Guard hit up Clark County with to stage the 2024 Super Bowl.

It might have been a wonderful opportunity for Folt and Cale to turn over the night’s proceeds to provide the kind of security that would have allowed the graduation ceremony to go off safely.  But nah, crickets.

So instead the powederkeg environment festered further, turning into this all-too-familiar playbook by Wednesday:

Campus security told the growing crowd that tents and signs on trees were not allowed and that microphones were banned. Some scuffles ensued as USC security officers attempted to dismantle the encampment before relenting under pressure from crowds chanting “shame.”

LAPD helicopters circled above. Activists unaffiliated with the university put out calls on social media for bigger crowds to show up at USC, which shut off public access to campus. Guzman, the provost, told academic deans that professors could move classes online.

LAPD officers in riot gear staged outside the gates. Shortly after 5 p.m., dozens of officers marched onto campus, and an hours-long standoff with protesters began. By the evening, police had arrested 93 people.

Finally, by Friday morning, Folt finally emerged from her self-imposed cocoon, issuing a statement that put the death knell into the entire ceremony.  This time, the security concern line was pivoted to time, as reported by KTLA’s Cameron Kiszla:

With the new safety measures in place this year, the time needed to process the large number of guests coming to campus will increase substantially,” the school wrote in an announcement. “As a result, we will not be able to host the main stage ceremony that traditionally brings 65,000 students, families, and friends to our campus all at the same time and during a short window from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.”

In addition, Folt announced even more draconian measures:

(W)hen long-standing safety policies are flagrantly violated, buildings vandalized, [Department of Public Safety] directives repeatedly ignored, threatening language shouted, people assaulted, and access to critical academic buildings blocked, we must act immediately to protect our community.”

A university-wide email then went out, announcing that unregistered guests would remain blocked from entering the typically open campus through May 8.

It also said that “no social events” were allowed during the period that included the end-of-year “study days” and final exams. The rule is written in the student handbook but rarely enforced. The email suggested that additional protesting would not be tolerated, saying that no “disruptive activities may take place.”

These decisions prompted a immediately viral video from one distraught senior who reminded her followers that, once again, “utmost of concerns” has denied her and others the chance to actually celebrate their expensive and exhaustive academic careers.  Per the NEW YORK POST’s Georgia Worrell:

Four years after her high school graduation ceremony was scrapped because of pandemic restrictions, a University of Southern California senior is “in tears” at the school’s decision this week to cancel its “main stage” graduation following out-of-control anti-Israel protests on campus. 

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would graduate high school and not have a graduation, get into USC, go all four years at USC and not have a graduation, I would have been like, what? Like, that doesn’t make sense,” USC senior Gracie Flynn said in a Thursday TikTok captioned “just so upsetting and disappointing.”

I kinda pick up a vibe that after a wait of four years, Flynn and her friends wouldn’t have had a problem with a slightly longer time window that the 90 minute limit Folt claimed was essential to have kept her graduation ceremony intact.

And the reactions from Flynn’s professors and classmates exhibit equivalent levels of exasperation.  Per the TIMES:

It’s a complete disaster,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen, a bestselling novelist and university professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature who has taught at USC for 27 years. “In every option, our administration has chosen the worst option. Every step along the way, our administration has been absent.”

And:

In a Saturday letter, the USC undergraduate student government executive cabinet said the university had a “disproportionate response” to activists that “eroded trust” and “restricted free expression.”

And now, in the wake of all of this, Folt, Tabassum and USC board chair Suzanne Nora Johnson have all gone radio silent.

But those checks from those alumni with unwavering and inflexible blind support toward Israel, so much that even the right of someone like Tabassum to simply represent her class, without even a hint of activist rhetoric, is apparently abhorrent.  Those apparently have or will soon be cashed.

Folt may as well give her students a lesson in economic reality for private institutions.  You follow the money, not the rhetoric.  The protests should indeed not be in Founders’ Park, adjacent to her residence, but perhaps in the neighborhoods or at businesses where USC alumni are to be found.

But good luck with that, kids.  You might find their security details are in way better shape than your school’s.

Until next time…

 

 

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