Punishing personal opinions is the first step toward authoritarianism

I cofounded the resistance to genocide minor. It is appalling that USC has caved to unfounded accusations against the valedictorian.

(Vivienne Tran / Daily Trojan)

Dear President Carol Folt, Provost Andrew Guzman, and Associate Senior Vice President of Risk and Safety Assurance Erroll Southers:


I write to protest in the strongest possible terms your decision to prohibit Asna Tabassum from giving her speech as the rightfully selected valedictorian. This is a matter of principle. As a university you are obligated to protect your students — including the valedictorian — and to guarantee academic freedom and the freedom of speech. By canceling the speech, you failed to adhere to all of these principles.

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Not only did you take away a well-deserved accolade connected to Tabassum’s selection as the valedictorian, but your decision will mar her life and potential future career. Because you allowed a hate campaign to succeed, a campaign which falsely accused her of antisemitism, you legitimized and promoted these false and misleading claims. She will now be seen by some as an antisemite and anti-Israel activist, which could not be further from the truth.

Your decision not only marred the special moment for which she worked extremely hard over four years, but you also tainted the special moment of graduation for many students. The message you sent to these students is to be quiet in their future lives, to not be outspoken and criticize injustices.

This is the opposite of promoting democratic values, which is the worst you could have done in these fragile times, where we face a rapid development toward authoritarianism.

For me, this is also a personal matter. Having grown up in the East German dictatorship, I know this is the first step on a slippery slope. Announcing that you are “reconsidering” the selection process — or, as I see it, planning to investigate students more thoroughly — for the next valedictorian selection cycle shows that you are already on a downward path; and this very plan abolished any security argument for the cancellation. 

In practice, this means USC’s leadership chooses to select and — as a result — punish future students for their private opinions which you might not like or share, instead of honoring their academic accomplishments.

As the Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and founding director of the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, as well as the cofounder and academic advisor for the resistance to genocide minor, I am appalled that you seem to have fallen for a campaign which conflates antisemitism with pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel views for political purposes.

I have dedicated my life to the study of antisemitism. I have written 10 books on the Holocaust. But as a result of this political campaign against Tabassum and her connection to the resistance to genocide minor, I am now being called an antisemite on social media. This is a first in a long career, but it should demonstrate to you how ridiculous, absurd, unfounded and untrue all these accusations are, in my case as much as in Tabassum’s.

I can say this with authority, since I know her well. I had her in my class on resistance to genocide, which includes several sections on the Holocaust, and I mentored her research. We stayed in touch even after the conclusion of our seminar, and I have written recommendation letters for her. I don’t know Tabassum as a political activist as she is now being labeled, but she is indeed one of the most empathetic persons I have met in my 15 years at USC. 

She values everybody as equal. That is why she, as a Muslim woman, chose the minor in resistance to genocide in the first place, a minor which includes multiple classes on the Holocaust. She is a fierce fighter for human rights, which explains her sympathy for the Palestinian cause at this moment when Gaza is being devastated.

Still, even if she were a political activist, it would be utterly wrong to prohibit her speech. There is no justification for the damage you have done to her as an individual, the USC experience of many students and the academic reputation of our University.

There is a lot of frustration and anger among my students and also among many faculty members, with whom I have had contact over the last 48 hours. As the faculty petition and yesterday’s demonstration show, hundreds of faculty members and students are demanding a revision of your decision.

I most strongly join the demands that USC and its leadership profoundly apologize to Tabassum and reinstate her honor to deliver the valedictorian address at commencement.

Wolf Gruner

Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of History

Founding Director, USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research

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