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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Guardian staff and agencies

USC cancels Jon M Chu keynote speech in wake of valedictorian controversy

The Tommy Trojan statue on the campus of the University of Southern California.
The Tommy Trojan statue on the campus of the University of Southern California. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The University of Southern California is “redesigning” its entire commencement plans – just days after making the controversial decision to cancel the valedictorian speech of a Muslim student – and will also cancel the keynote speech by film-maker Jon M Chu.

The Los Angeles university’s provost, Andrew Guzman, said on Monday that it took the unprecedented step of canceling valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech at the 10 May ceremony because of the “alarming tenor” of reactions to her selection as valedictorian – along with “the intensity of feelings” surrounding Israel’s military strikes in Gaza – had created “substantial risks relating to security”. He did not cite any specific threats.

The university’s decision was met with praise from pro-Israel organizations but condemnation from free speech groups and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Students and faculty marched across campus on Thursday in silent protest of the university’s decision.

Now university officials are cancelling all outside speakers.

“Given the highly publicized circumstances surrounding our main-stage commencement program, university leadership has decided it is best to release our outside speakers and honorees from attending this year’s ceremony,” the university said in an unsigned statement posted on Friday.

“We’ve been talking to this exceptional group and hope to confer these honorary degrees at a future commencement or other academic ceremonies.”

Chu was slated to deliver the keynote address at the ceremony. He is a 2003 graduate of the university who has since directed the films Crazy Rich Asians and Wicked, an adaptation for the Broadway musical set for release last this year.

Since Hamas’s 7 October 2023 attack on Israel killed more than 1,100 mostly civilians as well as captured hostages, and the resulting assault on Gaza has killed in excess of 30,000 mostly civilians – mainly women and children – while pushing the territory toward famine, US campuses have been roiled with debate over growing support for Palestine as well as dueling accusations of rising Islamophobia and antisemitism.

It was amid that climate that a USC committee selected Tabassum out of about 100 students with perfect, or nearly perfect, grade-point averages who applied to be valedictorian for a spring graduation ceremony honoring more than 19,000 graduates before an anticipated 65,000 spectators, according to Guzman.

“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,” Tabassum said in a statement earlier this week.

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