Faculty share letters of support for protesters

The statements condemned the University’s deployment of police aganist students.

Devin Griffiths, a professor of English and comparative literature, led a faculty march from Bovard Auditorium to the gates of the Trousdale North Entrance, calling for the University to protect students’ right to free speech. (Joy Wang / Daily Trojan)

During the last few weeks of the semester, numerous academic departments at the University have come out with letters condemning the administration’s actions in response to the Gaza Solidarity Occupation, as well as the University’s decision to bar Valedictorian Asna Tabassum from speaking at commencement. The faculty’s growing frustration came to a head May 8, when the Academic Senate voted to censure President Carol Folt and Provost Andrew Guzman in a public expression of the faculty’s disapproval of their leadership. The same day, the Academic Senate also moved to table a vote of no confidence against Folt and Guzman. With the potential of a vote of no confidence fast approaching, the Daily Trojan compiled a list of all of the letters different faculty groups have written denouncing the administration’s response to the controversies on campus related to Israel’s war in Gaza. 

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Members of the Palestine Justice Faculty Group wrote a letter to fellow faculty members, calling faculty governance and student agency “illusory” at USC and providing a list of steps faculty could take if they wanted to support students. The list included canceling finals, being lenient with deadlines, donating to the organizers on Venmo and emphasizing the demands of students in any letters to administration, rather than “centering the conversation on abstract, content-neutral ideas about ‘free speech.’”  

“The administration has shown not only disregard, but outright contempt for the will of students, staff, and faculty,” the letter states. [Those in charge] are willing to endanger our university community to reinforce their own mistakes. The administration took a space of pedagogical flourishing … and rendered it a violent, militarized horror,” the letter states.

The letter criticized the power USC gives Erroll Southers, a co-chair of the Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board and the current president of the Los Angeles Police Department Commission, who the letter alleged of working with Israeli security forces. It also urged faculty to “support students” rather than “supplicating to administration.”

“USC profits from arms investment, and is now brutalizing its own students. As such, this university functions as a violence machine woven into global networks of other death-making technologies,” the letter states. “The university is an imperialist entity complicit in genocide and silencing those who dare to protest it.”

On April 29, 139 members of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism wrote a letter to Folt and Guzman. The letter included 10 requests for the University, including an “explanation of why DPS and LAPD were deployed on 4/24,” that the University rewrite or update the existing rules around protesting and involve students and faculty in the process and for the University to communicate transparently and efficiently with student journalists. 

The letter also states that the University’s decision to deploy the LAPD on April 24 violated “California’s Leonard Law, which applies First Amendment free speech protections to private colleges in the state.”

“Decisions made by central leadership have sabotaged free speech and free assembly. The administration also has frustrated the working of a free press by refusing to explain its decision-making beyond vague comments about student safety,” the letter states.

Sixteen members of the Department of History wrote a letter calling for the “immediate resignation” of Folt, Guzman, Southers and DPS Chief Lauretta Hill. The letter said the students participating in the April 24 protest were peaceful and that the University had an obligation to maintain an environment that allowed for free inquiry, teaching and research.

“On April 24, learning and exchange did continue. Due to the administration, this was sadly moved from the safety of the classroom and the university commons to police wagons … On these points, the university administration’s failure is total,” the letter states. “In subjecting our students and colleagues to arbitrary violence, the administration has forfeited its right to lead.”

On April 26, 24 faculty members of the Department of Comparative Literature sent an open letter to Folt, Guzman and the Board of Trustees. The letter states that the undersigned faculty supported students’ rights to peaceful protest, that any criminal charges against students be dropped and that students’ involvement in the protest did not impact their academic standing at USC. The letter also condemned USC’s “betrayal of the core values of our University,” including allowing the free exchange of ideas and ensuring the welfare of students.

“Those of us present during the protests of April 24, 25 and 26 can attest that our students were nonviolent and in no way interfered with normal university operations,” the letter states. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the armed police incursion onto our campus and the brutalization of our students.” 

The Department of American Studies and Ethnicity wrote in a letter to Folt, Guzman and Southers that the core faculty of ASE voted unanimously to condemn the University’s decision to call the LAPD on protesters April 24. The letter, which was released April 26, states that LAPD brought violence into a peaceful protest, and that the protest would not have happened had USC not canceled Tabassum’s commencement speech.

The letter included a list of what ASE believed USC “owed” its students, including an apology, a demilitarized campus, the dismissal of charges against those arrested April 24 and “the righteous restoration of Tabassum’s well-earned place at commencement.”

“ASE’s intellectual project challenges students to be critically engaged thinkers who make positive impacts on our society,” the letter states. “We cannot effectively fulfill our mission when the administration flagrantly undermines the core values of our department.”

Individual professors have also written statements condemning the University’s actions: Mike Ananny, a professor of journalism, wrote a letter to the editor expressing his “extreme disappointment, anger and embarrassment” toward the University. Viet Thanh Nguyen — the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and a professor of English, American studies and ethnicity, and comparative literature — as well as Karen Tongson — a professor of gender and sexuality studies, English, and American studies and ethnicity — also wrote a letter. They stated that the protesters present April 24 were “at the very heart of student life.”

Thirty-six members of the Department of Psychology also wrote a letter to Folt and Guzman. They condemned USC’s deployment of LAPD on April 24 and said a history professor had been detained for 13 hours at the LAPD county jail. The letter also states that USC’s actions “reflect a goal of stifling politically sensitive speech rather than cultivating open exchange.”

“As psychologists … we stand firmly against violence and oppression in all its forms. These tactics, when employed by authoritarian regimes, are not solutions – they are accelerants,” the letter states. “Similarly, our own university administration’s aggressive response to protest shuts down any chance of compromise and furthers the divides on our campus.”

Retired professor Donald Miller, formerly the Leonard K. Firestone professor of religion and the co-founder of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, also sent an email to Folt and Guzman on April 16. He recalled when Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to campus, whose views against the apartheid in South Africa brought death threats and a crowd of 3,000 students to campus. Miller recalled the University bringing in the LAPD to protect Tutu and stated that the decision to cancel Asna’s speech “had more to do with decorum than life-threatening issues.”

“Free speech sometimes requires risks,” Miller wrote. “Now you have created a situation that will invite protests, send a horrible message to our Muslim community, and tarnished the reputation of the university. Furthermore, you have raised deep suspicions about the role of the Israeli lobby and Jewish members of the Board of Trustees in making this decision.”

Darby Saxbe, a professor of clinical training, also wrote a letter to the University where she questioned the lack of police presence at the tenant’s rights protest held on campus to the mobilization of the LAPD on April 24. Saxbe theorized it was because the encampment’s focus “was politically controversial and might risk bringing bad headlines or making big donors unhappy.”

“But that’s the thing about free speech: You don’t get to just choose the speech you like,” Saxbe wrote. “By suppressing student protest as swiftly and harshly as it has done, USC reveals itself to be intolerant of critical discourse and overly focused on its donors and public image at the expense of its role as a university that ought to foster critical thinking and debate.”

On April 26, 11 members of Gender and Sexuality Studies at USC, including the chair of the department and the director of undergraduate studies, wrote a letter to Folt and Guzman. The letter states that the protests were peaceful and demonstrated the values of the GSS department. It also expresses disappointment at USC’s “blatant disregard” for students’ right to dissent, linking USC’s statement on free speech and calls on the school to have a dialogue with student protesters. 

“Our students … came together to peacefully proclaim that the recognition of one’s humanity need not require the erasure of another,” the letter states. “We denounce this institution’s theater of ‘security’ and ‘safety’ that would rather turn on the young minds it has fostered and educated than deem their compassion, convictions, and actions worthy of consideration.” 

Most recently, 61 USC Jewish and Jewish Studies Faculty and Staff — with “different political persuasions and of differing views on the state of Israel” — signed and sent a letter to Folt and Guzman May 10, condemning the University’s treatment of the protesters at the encampment as well as the University’s decision to “censor” Tabassum. 

Across the country, invocations and accusations of antisemitism are being weaponized to silence and delegitimize certain perspectives and expressions of protest. They also are fueling counter-protests by right-wing nationalists exploiting the struggle against antisemitism for their own gain,” the letter reads. “We place the University’s recent actions in this context.”

The group also denounced the University for its “failure” to keep Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian students safe on campus, 

“The administration’s failure to articulate and apply principles that distinguish between the right to dissent and expressions of intolerance or discrimination has weakened the ability of the university community to counter all forms of bigotry and racism, including anti-Palestinian racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia,” the letter states.

Faculty have also shown support for students beyond writing letters. On May 2, a faculty march for students was held, and on May 7, faculty held a rally for suspended students. The Academic Senate voted to censure Folt and Guzman on May 8, citing the administration’s actions toward protesting students as one reason for the decision. 

Several faculty members were also present at the “People’s Commencement” held by USC Divest from Death Coalition on May 13, including Lan Duong, an associate professor of cinematic arts. Duong said she was “grateful” for students’ interest in politics and capitalism and that she was “proud” to recognize their scholastic achievements and the milestone of graduation. 

“To you all, anti-colonial, anti-imperial warriors: I salute you all. I hope you take away from this experience realizing another world is possible and is in reach,” Duong said. 

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