Students, staff and faculty gathered in front of Tommy Trojan, holding posters bearing slogans that decried racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Impassioned speeches were met with raucous applause. The crowd sang and chanted together in a show of solidarity with marginalized communities, a rallying cry that echoed not only at USC, but also across college campuses nationwide.
In the midst of a contentious political climate, protests and demonstrations organized by college students have been cropping up more than ever. With the recent violence that erupted at UC Berkeley over the invitation of alt-right speakers, student activism has been thrust into the national spotlight, and plenty of media attention has been focused on the question: To what extent should students be allowed to exercise their political freedoms on campus?
USC, however, does not seem to possess a robust culture of student activism comparable to that of other college campuses across the nation. Although student activism does exist at USC, it occurs only in small pockets, and it has not flourished with nearly the same scale and intensity as other campuses such as UC Berkeley.
Amanda Chan, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science and economics, is involved with USC Students for Justice in Palestine and Young Democratic Socialists of America. She attributed the disparity partly to the difference between public and private universities, where private schools are held less accountable for their practices and are allowed a greater degree of carte blanche.
“USC tries to be apolitical; that’s how the culture is,” Chan said. “Because we’re a private school, students tend to be more conservative. It’s more focused on career goals and building your brand.”
Rini Sampath, a USC alumna and former student body president, believes that there is no incentive for USC to actively work toward change if there is no external pressure. In 2015, Sampath found herself surrounded by a media maelstrom when another USC student hurled a racial epithet at her. Instead of staying quiet about her experience, however, she chose to speak out, garnering national attention and leading to a widespread demand for change by the student body.
“There’s a problem at USC where the pressure is put on through negative media attention and that typically is what leads to lasting change,” Sampath said. “If there isn’t any, there is no initiative taken to remedy the problems. Or, there are situations where there is negative media attention, yet steps to address the issue still aren’t taken.”
Sampath said the USC administration prioritizes fundraising and financial gain over community improvements and therefore remains complacent about students’ concerns.
“At the end of the day, nothing will seriously change because it’s not hurting the institution where it matters, which is the the administrators,” Sampath said. “As long as administrators bring in billions of dollars, it’s difficult to really push them to create change because it’s not affecting them.”
In a statement, Monique Allard, the associate vice provost for student engagement, reaffirmed USC’s commitment to supporting students’ advocacy efforts and creating a culture of mutual respect.
“USC is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated, and for which all its members share responsibility,” Allard wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “Student Affairs wholeheartedly supports student voice and student advocacy.”
But student activists looking to hold a protest must follow a series of steps, which student activists believe USC makes deliberately confusing and complex.
David Delgado, a senior majoring in gender studies and theatre, is involved with SCALE, the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation.
“Most organization is in a public place because you want to show people what you’re doing, like a rally,” Delgado said. “And in USC’s policies, if you want to do that, you need to reserve that space nearly a month in advance, which isn’t a sustainable model. You have to rent out the facility, you have to fill out the paperwork, you have to have a student adviser on the premises, you have to pay for amplified sound.”
According to the USC student handbook, SCampus, students must reserve the venue where they wish to hold a protest through Trojan Event Services, which issues permits at its own discretion.
Students also need to complete an Outdoor Event Questionnaire and a USC Event Permit Application at least two weeks in advance and schedule a meeting with the director of campus activities. Any flyers and posters also have to be approved beforehand.
Lynn Wang, a senior majoring in environmental studies, also believes that the lack of transparency from the administration and its refusal to acknowledge campus issues discourages students from voicing their discontent.
“USC has very restrictive policies on what student activists can and cannot do, which severely hinders our actions,” Wang said. “They’re also very quick to shut down actions that don’t fit into what is allowed. They have very, very tight regulations, so it takes an absurd amount of planning to pull something off.”
After attempting to speak with the administration about their concerns and being denied an audience, student activists said that they felt that their efforts were futile and that their voices are being ignored. Delgado agreed that USC’s administration has been vague and obscure when dealing with the demands of student protesters, sometimes even retracting their promises. Open forums were held with Provost Michael Quick and Vice President of Student Affairs Ainsley Carry, but according to Delgado, they did not provide direct answers or solutions, and he felt that attention soon tapered off.
“As soon as the pressure died down, those meetings stopped happening,” Delgado said. “If the University was actually interested in hearing student voices, they would make changes without having hundreds of students knocking at their doors.”
In order for USC to improve in dealing with student activists and assist in promoting a more welcoming environment for advocacy, Wang believes that the most basic effort that the University can put forth is to keep its word.
“It would be nice if they committed to the things they promised to us rather than reneging,” Wang said. “We in the activist community have agreed that USC is so focused on its image that the only way to bring accountability is to name and shame.”
Allard encouraged students interested in making a difference on campus to get involved with student government and the local community.
“In regards to helping students make change, I again encourage interested students to work with their respective student governments to express their interests, and join the student government advocacy efforts,” Allard wrote.