C Pam Zhang and Safiya Noble have withdrawn as USC commencement speakers.


Dan Sheehan

April 28, 2024, 9:00pm

In response to the University of Southern California administration’s recent behavior regarding pro-Palestinian protest on campus, Booker Prize-nominated novelist C Pam Zhang (How Much of These Hills is Gold) and MacArthur Fellow Safiya Noble (Algorithms of Oppression) have withdrawn as keynote speakers for the USC Rossier’s doctoral and master’s commencement ceremonies, and have called on all other commencement speakers still scheduled to appear at USC satellite ceremonies to join them.

In an open letter to the USC Provost, President, and Board of Trustees, Zhang and Noble condemned the college administration for refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with a group of peaceful student protestors known as USC Divest from Death, for inviting armed LAPD officers onto campus, and for censoring valedictorian Asna Tabassum:

“To speak at USC in this moment would betray not only our own values, but USC’s too … We cannot overlook the link between recent developments and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”

The publication of this letter comes after 93 peaceful protestors were arrested on trespassing charges over the course of several hours at USC’s main campus on Wednesday night.

“All we want is peace!” the protesters chanted as dozens of LAPD officers, clad in riot gear, descended upon their encampment at USC’s Alumni Park, where the university’s main-stage commencement was scheduled to take place next month (before it was canceled entirely on Thursday).

How many of Zhang and Noble’s fellow satellite commencement speakers will answer their call, and how many more of USC’s scheduled graduation ceremonies will be cancelled by the end of this week, is anybody’s guess.

 

Here is Zhang and Noble’s letter in full:

 

April 28, 2024

To Provost Andrew T. Guzman, President Carol Folt, the USC Board of Trustees, and the USC administration,

When we signed on as commencement speakers for USC satellite graduation ceremonies, 38 of which are still scheduled to go forward as of today, we did so with the tacit understanding that USC was committed to its stated values: “Act with integrity in the pursuit of excellence. Embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, and promote well-being. Engage in open communication and be accountable for living our values.”

Like many who are bearing witness to the recent events at USC, we are appalled that the administration has:

Refused to meet in good faith with a coalition of peaceful student protestors known as USC Divest from Death. These groups have repeatedly called for meetings with administration.

Twice deployed armed LAPD troops to arrest 93 student protestors, thereby risking students’ physical well-being, academic futures, and career prospects; and deployed USC Department of Public Safety forces to intimidate protestors on an ongoing basis.

Censored valedictorian Asna Tabassum with little explanation or transparency.

To speak at USC in this moment would betray not only our own values, but USC’s too. We are withdrawing as commencement speakers.

We cannot overlook the link between recent developments and the ongoing genocide in Palestine. On April 15th, Provost Guzman canceled valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech, citing vague and undisclosed “risks” that followed the discovery of her support for Palestine. For a campus that has hosted a range of high-profile speakers who require heightened security, from President Barack Obama to Ben Shapiro to the King of Jordan, Asna’s removal smacks of censorship and hypocrisy. We stand with Asna, USC student protestors, and an increasingly vocal contingent of the American public in expressing our support for Palestinians and condemning Israel’s ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, including over 14,000 children.

Asna’s removal, the administration’s refusal to engage in dialogue with student protestors, and the decision to invite LAPD forces onto campus, represent a violent and targeted refusal to allow true diversity of expression to flourish on campus. The right to free speech and peaceful protest are not only fundamental to democracy, but a particular, proud feature of American universities. This year’s protests belong to a lineage of campus protests that have sparked national conversations and societal change, from the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War. Whether the topic at hand be racism, classism, sexism, political persecution, antisemitism, or Islamophobia, all protests against violence and oppression are linked. USC should be proud of its students for demonstrating that they have absorbed the longest-lasting lessons a university can hope to impart: the ability to think independently and critically, the willingness to engage in difficult dialogue in pursuit of a more just society for all.

Let us be clear: our withdrawal is in no way a condemnation of USC’s graduating class, who deserve to be celebrated; nor do we condemn the countless USC faculty, staff, students, and administrators whose views are not represented by university leadership’s authoritarian decision-making. As the date of commencement approaches, it is deeply regrettable that USC has turned a time for celebrating its entire student body into an opportunity to punish a small group.

In sharing this letter publicly, we hope to apply pressure on USC administration to address our concerns, and meet in good faith with student protestors. Should our conditions be met, we would consider delivering our commencement speeches as previously scheduled, in order to celebrate deserving graduates and their families. Until such time, we call on all commencement speakers still scheduled to appear at satellite ceremonies to join us by signing this letter; withdrawing from USC events; and supporting USC students, as well as thousands of students nationwide who deserve respect, not arrest and punishment by their own universities, for courageously speaking truth to power.

Finally, we strongly encourage faculty, students, and their families across the U.S. to honor the hard work of graduates through self-organized, community-based celebrations off-campus. We stand in solidarity in these times of incredible crisis.

 

C Pam Zhang
Author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold and Land of Milk and Honey

Safiya U. Noble, Ph.D.
UCLA Professor and author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

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If you are a speaker slated to appear at a USC satellite commencement ceremony, and you would like to add your name to this letter, please email uscwithdrawal@gmail.com



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