We cannot trust you, Provost Guzman and President Folt

An open letter from Annenberg professor Mike Ananny to Provost Andrew Guzman and President Carol Folt.

(Vivienne Tran / Daily Trojan)

Dear Provost Andrew Guzman and President Carol Folt,

I have never written a letter like this, but I want to express my extreme disappointment, anger and embarrassment not only about yesterday’s events but, specifically, your leadership during the last couple of weeks. Lest you mistake silence for approval, I want you to hear that you are failing the University.

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The initial decision to cancel Valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s address showed your failure to follow through on your own selection process and your supposed commitment to free speech. You failed to invest in her address the same resources that the University has allocated to other challenging security contexts. 

That failure sent a signal to the University and the broader public that her speech was worth less than others. You failed to imagine or propose any alternative ways that she could have given her address. You have a university filled with experts in communication, media, storytelling and technology design. You did not ask us for help.

You did not communicate to the University with any regularity or sophistication, and the few notes you did send read like defensive pablum. Your squirrelish refusals to offer any specifics about the security concerns showed a distinct lack of respect for the USC community. As faculty, we are often called upon by the University to prioritize our students’ safety and make judgments about their individual and collective well-being. We do that. We do that often, and we do it well. 

Many of us have spent countless hours caring for our students, especially since March 2020. But you did not trust us enough to talk with us about what safety means in this situation, to share any details nor ask for our perspectives. In telling the Academic Senate why you did not consult us, you said that student safety is your responsibility, not ours, and that we should trust your judgment. Your judgment failed; I do not trust it.

Then, even in the aftermath of your terrible decision-making and communication, knowing that protests were likely, you invited the Los Angeles Police Department to campus to intimidate and suppress a peaceful and innocuous protest, mere hours after it formed. Your insinuation that many protesters were outsiders — not USC community members — and that the protest was generally threatening campus safety is simply not to be believed. It contradicts many eyewitness reports and journalistic coverage and ignores the power that law enforcement has to escalate protest tensions. Once again, your judgment failed, and I do not trust it.

Then, your actions allowed the LAPD to arrest peaceful students and faculty, to bully and intimidate and expel students from campus spaces where they were peacefully assembled, and to threaten legal action and criminal records. And last night, I watched as the LAPD fired a rubber bullet at students, including student journalists clearly wearing “PRESS” badges. You allowed — and encouraged — the campus to become a dangerous, militarized space. Your actions failed to secure student safety; they endangered student safety. Again, your judgment failed, and I do not trust it.

Finally, as I was finishing the drafting of this letter, I received yet another unsigned email from USC administration effectively canceling this year’s commencement. You have still said nothing about the reaction to Asna’s cancellation, how your actions fail to align with USC’s values and why you chose to militarize campus and harm students. The only public message you have put your name on is a statement celebrating Reggie Bush’s trophy reinstatement. Once again, your judgment and communication would be comical if it weren’t so violent and harmful.

You make my work harder. You harm my students. You put me in opposition to you as leaders because your actions show me that you are not committed to the University’s stated values. This is clarifying.

I am a tenured faculty member. I participate in and help lead initiatives at the University. I speak to the press, I help raise money and court potential donors, and I help recruit students. I am embarrassed by your communication, your judgment and your leadership.

I have no confidence in your ability to repair the deep damage you have done to this institution.

Mike Ananny, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism

Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

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