USC cancels valedictorian’s commencement speech

The University of Southern California’s (USC) 2024 valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, has been denied the traditional opportunity of delivering a speech at the university’s graduation ceremony on May 10. The decision was made due to concern for the safety of students and the campus community regarding Tabassum’s open support of Palestine.

Tabassum has continued expressing her views since the school’s decision and responded to the move in a statement. “I am not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university, my home for four years, has abandoned me,” Tabassum said.

Backlash focused on a link to a pro-Palestinian website on Tabassum’s Instagram page, a public indication of her political views. The site, Free Palestine Carrd, includes statements about Zionism, saying it is “a racist settler-colonial ideology,” and detailing the proposed one-state and two-state solutions. The site supports a one Palestinian state, meaning “Palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel,” where “Arabs and Jews can live together without an ideology that specifically advocates for the ethnic cleansing of one of them.”

Tabassum has been labeled anti-semetic by pro-Israel groups for advocating the anti-Israel content on the website. In an interview with ABC News, Tabassum defended her position on the conflict. “I think it points to what I’ve been saying since the beginning of this issue, which is that I’m committed to human equality and to human rights. […] When it comes to abolishing the state of Israel, I will say I want to abolish apartheid,” Tabassum said.

“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,” Andrew Guzman, the school’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, wrote in a statement released to USC’s students.

Despite support of the university’s decision to cancel the speech, according to the Los Angeles Times, dozens of student groups have signed a letter to administrators, saying they are “outraged and ashamed.” More than 130 faculty members have also signed a letter to the president of the school, Carol Folt, saying her move “stifles open communication.”

Tabassum intended to deliver the same messages customarily conveyed in a valedictorian speech. “I wanted to impart a message of hope. I also wanted to impart a message of responsibility. […] We are given a wonderful set of higher education. We have been given the knowledge of learning how to learn. I wanted to encourage my peers to learn about the world and come to their own conclusions and then act to change the world in the ways that they see fit. And so ultimately, taking on my role as valedictorian, I wanted to be a unifying voice for all students, and that was preemptively taken away from me,” Tabassum said.