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USC cancels Jon Chu, Billie Jean King commencement appearances amid valedictorian controversy

Angie Orellana Hernandez and Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Representatives for Chu and King did not respond to requests for comment. Jackson did not reply to a phone call and text message. McNutt did not reply to an email.

On Friday afternoon, graduating seniors posed for photos in their caps and gowns by the Tommy Trojan statue in the center of campus as other students walked about. Many said they were surprised and confused by the news.

Franco Gutierrez, a USC junior, called the move “awful” and “heartbreaking.”

“I didn’t think that is how they’d respond to the protest,” Gutierrez said.

“It’s ridiculous,” said a recent graduate — who did not give her name — as she walked on campus with enrolled students.

Christina Dunbar-Hester, a professor of communication, said in an email that “administrators have already embarrassed USC considerably and they owe Asna and the entire campus community an apology.”

“Many including myself are hoping to hear a fuller explication (including details about security concerns) and a path forward from our President, Carol Folt,” said Dunbar-Hester, who is the acting president of the American Association of University Professors USC chapter.

Friday’s move capped a week of intense debate over USC’s cancellation of Tabassum’s speech that included a campus protest that hundreds attended Thursday and criticism of USC by civil rights groups and politicians, including Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.


The saga began Monday, when USC Provost Andrew T. Guzman released a campus-wide letter citing unnamed threats that poured in shortly after the university announced Tabassum as valedictorian and scheduled speaker. Guzman said attacks against the student had reached an “alarming tenor” and “escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement.”

The complaints focused on a link on Tabassum’s Instagram profile to a pro-Palestinian website that said, “Zionism is a racist settler-colonialist ideology,” and “One Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel” so that “both Arabs and Jews can live together.”

Guzman did not indicate what the threats were or against whom they were directed. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department, Capt. Kelly Muniz, told the Los Angeles Times the agency had no crime reports regarding violent threats targeting Tabassum or the commencement ceremony.

Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, Tabassum defended herself and said she is not antisemitic. She said she supports the pro-Palestinian cause that has grown at college campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, which the Israeli government says killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages, before Israel’s retaliatory war in the Gaza Strip. Gaza health authorities say the war has killed about 34,000 Palestinians. According to the United Nations, 2 million Gazans are in near-famine conditions.

“The university has betrayed me and caved in to a campaign of hatred,” Tabassum said.

On Friday, Tabassum — who still plans to attend graduation — declined to comment on the additional cancellations.

(Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.)

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