USC cancels joint town hall with student groups

Photo of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, where the USG town hall was slated to be held. The building is a pale brick color with three small balconies and rounded windows.
USC administration, the Undergraduate Student Government and the Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence initially announced the town hall’s location as the Ronald Tutor Campus before it was moved online. (Beth Mosch | Daily Trojan file photo)

Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault, drugging and violence. 

Since Wednesday, Oct. 27, the Undergraduate Student Government, Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence and USC administration planned to host an in-person town hall Tuesday where students and professors could voice concerns about the drugging and sexual assault reports at the Sigma Nu fraternity house and other locations on fraternity row. 

However, on the morning of Nov. 2 — the day of the town hall — USC administration canceled the event, and told USG they wanted to hold a Zoom Webinar instead with a question and answer chat feature.

“In a lot of ways, we felt like we were on the same page with [USC administration],” said USG president Alexis Areias. “But, as it got closer, and then today, it became very clear that University admin was not super comfortable with the vastness of this event, which was now open to the entire student body.”

At 3:22 p.m., less than two hours before the event, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Charles Zukoski and Acting Vice President for Student Affairs Monique Allard sent a communitywide email inviting students to a 5 p.m. Zoom Webinar with “USC senior leaders” to answer questions about the sexual assault reports. The webinar was unaffiliated with USG and the Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence.

“We have chosen the webinar format to allow students an opportunity to discuss sensitive experiences without identifying themselves and to provide a chance to listen and participate if they choose in a safe setting,” the email read.

However, Areias said the webinar format took away from the impact of the planned event that would have allowed for more direct communication with administration, who are not usually accessible to students. 

“We were really, really hopeful that something like that could take place, and also to have that moment of community,” Areias said. “I think we can all agree. We know from Zoom and from being there and then back in class. There’s just a very stark difference there.”

In an Instagram post, USG wrote that the event’s cancellation was “disheartening.”

“We believe this discussion is instrumentally important and strive to emphasize the values of transparency and inclusiveness in addressing the issue of sexual violence,” the post read. 

Sydney Brown, president of the Trojan Democrats — an organization part of the Student Coalition Against Sexual Violence — said she began collaborating on the town hall last week after Tuesday’s Panhellenic town hall in which sorority members expressed concerns and shared their Greek life experiences with administrators such as President Carol Folt.

Brown, who also serves as the chairwoman of the external affairs committee for USG, said she was “very unhappy” with the University’s response to the sexual assault reports and had looked forward to the town hall.

“It’s pretty enticing — the thought of being able to actually go face to face with administrative representatives to share your story in sort of a listening session format, and then also to hear the presentation that they had prepared,” Brown said. “I think that students were really looking forward to that.”

Around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Brown said Areias and USG vice president Lucy Warren called her into their conference room and said USC cancelled the town hall. 

“It was incredibly disheartening. I was angry,” Brown said. “It honestly did make me very emotional.” 

Brown said the joint town hall would have been one of the first times, in her experience, that the administration welcomed an event with student organizations, interested in hearing student perspectives and “supportive of students who are eager to speak their mind and share their thoughts and opinions on the issue of sexual violence at USC.”

However, the webinar format took that opportunity away, and “almost entirely defeated the purpose of the town hall to begin with,” Brown said.

During the town hall, administrators such as Folt, Zukoski, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beong-Soo Kim spoke about the University’s response to the sexual assault reports before answering questions that attendees wrote in a question and answer section.

Associate Vice Provost for Student Engagement Emily Sandoval and Assistant Vice Provost for Student Equity and Inclusion Naddia Palacios relayed questions ranging from why the administration has not abolished Greek life to what the consequences are for students who “have slandered and verbally abused the Panhellenic community.”

Following the town hall, Areias said the webinar format allowed students to learn information about resources on campus and covered many of the issues USG wanted addressed. However, she believes the previous format would have been beneficial.

“What’s so beneficial about that is that you really do give administration a temperature check on what the University is really feeling,” she said. “Not many students get the opportunity to interact with administration on a daily basis. And, so, to have the opportunity to share personal thoughts, I think would have been incredibly beneficial for both students and administration.”

USG issued a statement last Wednesday with a list of demands for the administration, including accountability for perpetrators, institutional reform, supportive resources for students and transparency about how long the administration knew about the reports. 

In a communitywide email Friday night, Folt admitted USC first learned about drugging and sexual assault reports at Sigma Nu on Sept. 30, nearly three weeks before students received an email from the Department of Public Safety. On Oct. 16, another student reported to DPS that they were sexually assaulted by a member of Sigma Nu.

Areias said USG has not had any additional communication with the administration since the event was canceled.

When asked for comment about USG’s frustration with the cancellation, USC referred the Daily Trojan to Zukoksi and Allard’s email.