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USC decision to cancel Muslim valedictorian's speech further inflames tensions on campus

Some students questioned the university's reasoning for canceling Asna Tabassum's commencement address.
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LOS ANGELES — Some students at the University of Southern California said their sense of pride was dashed this week when the school canceled Muslim student Asna Tabassum's valedictorian speech out of security concerns.

They said the announcement of Tabassum's selection as valedictorian this month made them feel seen and heard.

“It showed me that our people have a voice on campus,” said USC student Abdullah Khlefat, who is Muslim.

Another student, named Layan, who asked that her last name not be used because she was afraid of being harassed for speaking out, said the announcement had brightened her outlook about the future.

“For a sliver of a moment, I had a sense of hope. I felt like one day I could be like Asna,” said Layan, a first-year student majoring in political science.

portrait usc valedictorian speech change
Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior, on the USC campus, on Tuesday.Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Those dreams were crushed when USC Provost Andrew Guzman rescinded Tabassum's invitation to speak at graduation, citing security concerns over tensions related to “the ongoing conflict in the Middle East."

He said in an announcement Monday that “over the past several days, discussion relating to the selection of our valedictorian has taken on an alarming tenor.”

“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,” the announcement read in part.

University officials did not respond to a request for details about threats the school may have received since the announcement or whether Tabassum had been made aware of them.

First-year student Danica Gonzalez, who supports Tabassum as valedictorian, said she believes the university is using security as pretext. She pointed to last year's commencement, which former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, attended when their daughter Sasha graduated.

"There is no way the university can’t protect her," Gonzalez said of Tabassum. "It’s just that they’re choosing not to."

After Tabassum was selected as valedictorian, at least two pro-Israel and Jewish groups complained to USC about the choice. They pointed to her social media activity, including her Instagram account, which links to a slideshow encouraging people to “learn about what’s happening in palestine, and how to help.”

It calls for “one palestinian state,” which it says “would mean palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of israel.” 

Brandon Tavakoli, president of Trojans for Israel, called Tabassum’s post “antisemitic.”

“The university has to make the decision about whether this valedictorian and her propagation of antisemitic vitriol online is worthy of being the representative of the class of 2024,” he told NBC News. “Commencement is supposed to be an inclusive and welcoming space for all students, including Jewish graduates and their families.”

Trojans for Israel said in a statement on Instagram that university officials failed to vet Tabassum's social media posts and condemn what it described as antisemitic content.

"We call on the University to speak with more moral clarity and hold our esteemed leaders to the highest standards of University standards," the statement read in part.

The recent controversy at USC underscores rising tensions across college campuses since the Israel-Hamas war started on Oct. 7.

Last week, a University of California, Berkeley, professor confronted a Muslim student during a dinner for graduating law students, an incident that was recorded on video and triggered an outpouring of anger and frustration from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups.

Earlier this month, 20 students at Pomona College in Southern California were arrested after they stormed and occupied the college president’s office.

At Columbia University in New York, several students were suspended this month after they hosted an unsanctioned event on campus featuring a speaker linked to a terrorist organization.

Tensions at USC reached a boiling point this month after Tabassum was selected as valedictorian, Gonzalez said. Students who disagreed with Tabassum's support for the Palestinian cause berated her on social media, and her supporters used those same platforms to defend her and denounce the school when her speech was canceled.

"It's been very jarring," Gonzalez said. "It feels like the university is just trying to protect its image."

Tabassum was born in the Southern California community of Chino Hills and majored in biomedical engineering with a minor in resistance to genocide, which included studying how technology, immigration and literacy play roles in the type of medical care people receive, according to a statement USC released when she was named valedictorian.

Layan, who was born in Syria and moved to the U.S. in the fifth grade, described Tabassum as a mentor and a role model.

“She wears a hijab, and I wear a hijab and am also Muslim,” Layan said. “I feel so connected to her.”

Layan first met Tabassum at the Muslim Student Union this year, she said. Tabassum introduced herself and swapped phone numbers with Layan, promising to keep her updated on events where Layan could meet new people.

“She is genuinely such a sweet person. I just know from the bottom of my heart she wouldn’t wish violence on anyone,” Layan said.

In a statement, Tabassum said the university’s decision is thinly veiled racism.

“Although this should have been a time of celebration for my family, friends, professors, and classmates, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian voices have subjected me to a campaign of racist hatred because of my uncompromising belief in human rights for all,” she said.