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Amid turmoil of protests, USC launches alternative celebration for graduates

No promotional speeches. No famous speakers. No ceremony on the main stage and no mass march of graduates to “Pomp and Circumstance” in front of tens of thousands of guests.

Instead, USC graduates will be treated to an alternative party Thursday evening, a “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration,” at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, on the eve of commencement ceremonies at smaller campuses where diplomas must be awarded at individual school events.

The Thursday evening event was billed as an “electric atmosphere” — capped at no more than six tickets per graduate — with a drone show, fireworks and a “special gift” for the Class of 2024: a college hat. college clothing brand from rap star Travis Scott.

Shortly before the event began, the crowd inside the Colosseum, which seats 77,500 people, was sparse.

Around 350 people were in attendance when the Phantogram duo took the stage at 7:45 p.m. and began a DJ set. Some present danced. Most were sitting and scrolling on their phones. A person read a book.

The university billed it as a “Southern California-style” celebration to make up for the loss of the traditional main stage ceremony with commencement and commencement speeches and the awarding of honorary degrees. But the unrest and protests on campus following the war between Israel and Hamas have disrupted the ritual.

A woman wearing a Trojans cap and sock stands among a small crowd at a large football stadium.

A DJ duo, seen in the distance, provided entertainment for attendees at USC’s event Thursday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Citing unspecified security threats, USC President Carol Folt canceled pro-Palestinian valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speaking time and then canceled the main ceremony. After students set up a pro-Palestinian tent 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.

On Wednesday, USC President Carol Folt and Dean Andrew 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?”

Typically, the annual baccalaureate ceremony – a nondenominational, interfaith celebration – takes place the day before graduation at Bovard Auditorium in the center of campus. This year, an “in-person blessing” was planned for the Coliseum celebration, as well as an “online interfaith blessing” that can be viewed on a commencement website.

At the student recognition awards ceremony Thursday afternoon, students dressed in graduation gowns applauded loudly as Tabassum was recognized.

She laughed and pretended to check her watch as the applause continued.

“You may not know this,” the announcer joked, “but Asna is USC’s valedictorian of 2024.”

His classmates then gave him a standing ovation.

Security at the Coliseum before campus activities began was tight.

On Thursday, access to the USC campus, which was already restricted to students, faculty, staff and registered guests, became even stricter. Students and staff were required to present a USC ID, and anyone else attempting to access campus needed an entry ticket.

Metal fences and black gates were installed around the campus. Guests went through metal detectors and were asked to carry clear purses or bags. Since Sunday’s camp sweep, USC officers from several law enforcement agencies have been stationed in the center of campus.

“They include officers from the Baldwin Park Police Department, the La Habra Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Airport Police,” according to David Carlisle, deputy chief of the Department of University Public Safety.

Police officers were stationed near the Tommy Trojan statue, which had been cleared after a protester — who the student encampment organizers said was not affiliated with them — spray-painted “ Stop the genocide” on its plaque.

California Daily Newspapers

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