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USC Silences Its Valedictorian. She Vows to Fight On

ColumnApril 18, 2024
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

At the center of the University of Southern California’s campus in Los Angeles stands a statue of Hecuba, queen of ancient Troy. “A statue celebrating the women of Troy,” says USC’s website. “Hecuba would defend her children and her city with fierce passion and loyalty. She would urge the Trojans to fight on, even when they were outnumbered, exhausted, facing impossible odds.” USC is suffused with the imagery of Troy, said by ancient writers like Homer to have been sacked by the Greeks after they entered the walled city by hiding inside the fabled Trojan Horse. The motto of USC’s sports teams, the Trojans, is, “Fight On!” But this week, USC decided to abandon one its most prominent young women students, its 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum, and to give up the fight, buckling under a wave of neo-McCarthyism sweeping campuses nationwide.

Last Monday, USC announced it was canceling Tabassum’s valedictory commencement address. “The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East…has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,” USC Provost Andrew Guzman explained in the statement, adding, “To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement.”

Asna Tabassum is a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, graduating with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide. She posted a response to USC’s announcement on the website of CAIR, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying in part, “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…on April 14, I asked about the alleged safety concerns and was told that the University had the resources to take appropriate safety measures for my valedictory speech, but that they would not be doing so since increased security protections is not what the University wants to ‘present as an image.’”

Speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour, Asna described the vitriol she suffered after being named valedictorian: “It only took a few hours before…a very generalized and, honestly, very hateful and disappointing campaign to remove me as valedictorian.”

USC officials wouldn’t share details of the threats they allegedly received. “I was offered no information and was told it was not appropriate for me to know,” Asna said.

Her major and minor may seem completely disparate areas of study, but Asna explained, “My minor in resistance to genocide allows me to study the human condition at possibly one of its worst conditions.”

She continued, “Biomedical engineering is my way of learning technically, how we can improve the human condition through increasing health accessibility…so that we can improve the ways in which people experience healthcare when they are most in need.”

One likely reason she was targeted, not raised by the USC administration, is her solidarity with Palestinians. In her Instagram bio, she links to a website detailing the Israel/Palestine conflict. On that site, both the two-state solution and the one-state solution, the two principle proposals for a permanent peace in the region, are described. One sentence reads, “one palestinian state would mean palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of israel.”

Asna responded on Democracy Now!, “The sentence right after talks about coexistence between Arabs and Jews…I’m only advocating for human equality, and for the sanctity of human life when I say that Palestinians, as well as Jews, as well as Muslims…and anyone else who has invested in this conflict has the equal right to life and the equal privilege of the fullest extent to life.”

Asna’s solidarity with Palestinians, especially as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, while Israel relentlessly bombs civilians in Gaza, may actually be what USC doesn’t want to “‘present as an image.’”

This all comes as Congressional Republicans mount a neo-McCarthyite campaign accusing elite liberal universities of tolerating anti-semitism on campus. While genuine anti-semitism exists, this current witch hunt appears to be targeting campuses where Palestinian solidarity and anti-war movements are growing in strength.

Before Columbia University President Minouche Shafik appeared Wednesday at the same House committee that led to the resignation of two presidents, both women, from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, 23 Jewish Barnard/Columbia professors wrote her a detailed open letter. It stated, “We object to the weaponization of antisemitism. And we advocate for a campus where all students, Jewish, Palestinian, and all others, can learn and thrive in a climate of open, honest inquiry and rigorous debate.”

CAIR is calling on the public to join its demand that USC reinstate Asna Tabassum as a commencement speaker. In the spirit of Hecuba, Asna vows to fight on.

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