Censure and Sensibility at USC

There are multiple reasons the University of Southern California (USC) Academic Senate might act to censure USC President Carol Folt. The faculty could censure her for her relatively anemic fund-raising performance over the past five years—see Contribution Revenue in USC’s Annual Reports—including her poorly received attempts to reorganize volunteer alumni and alumnae supporters; for her unliteral decision to pause 401(a) USC nonelective employer contributions to faculty and staff individual retirement accounts during the 2021 calendar year, despite USC’s offers to make these payments to faculty and staff when hired, and despite record returns in 2021 on an unrestricted endowment balance of approximately $2 billion; for selling the Seeley Mudd Estate, the banquet-friendly former USC presidential mansion in San Marino and decamping to an event-free modernist box in Santa Monica; or for tolerating a degree-granting, full-tuition, distance-only USC school that includes no full-time faculty.

However, her responses to the pro-Palestinian, pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist encampments on the USC campus this spring are not grounds for the censure she and USC Provost Andrew Guzman received from USC’s Academic Senate on May 8th. Further, removing these encampments is one of the few steps she has taken during her tenure as USC President that seems intended not to alienate USC’s rabidly loyal alums. However, her steps certainly annoyed many of USC’s progressive faculty.

The USC Academic Senate members and most faculty observers present at the Senate’s May 8th meeting objected to multiple decisions by President Folt, including not allowing USC 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum to speak at commencement, incrementally canceling USC’s 2024 main commencement ceremony, using the Los Angeles Police Department to forcibly remove student and non-student protesters from USC’s campus on April 24th, resulting in 93 arrests, approximately half of which involved students; and again using LAPD to peacefully remove student and faculty protesters from the exact location on campus in the early morning hours of May 5th. The peaceful results on May 5th were possible because the campus had been closed for several days to all who were not USC faculty, staff, students, or vendors. All who had returned to reoccupy the space cleared on April 24th were students or, in a few cases, faculty members.

President Folt and Provost Guzman addressed the Academic Senate at length on May 8th, but their efforts were largely unsuccessful. The presence of armed USC Department of Public Safety officers at the meeting sent a clear message to the faculty that they did not enjoy the trust of the USC leadership. The faculty group was mid-sized, with around 50 in the room and over 200 on Zoom. However, the presence of armed personnel seemed excessive and unprecedented, which annoyed the faculty from the start. Both Folt and Guzman reiterated that their actions were in response to concrete safety threats. Guzman, a former Law School Dean, explained the trade-offs he considered and the principles he relied on in making his decisions and recommendations to President Folt. He aimed to communicate his reasoning to the group and succeeded, at least in part.

Folt was considerably less persuasive than Guzman. Her consistent position was that the nature of the safety risks to which they were responding and how they had been identified and assessed were off-limits in any discussion with any group of faculty members. Presumably, President Folt did not intend to be as condescending as she appeared. However, she treated safety objectives as a magic wand, justifying any decision she made, no matter how opaque. In this respect, she was dismissive. Her responses implied she was not accountable to the faculty, but the Academic Senate was not buying it.

Both President Folt and Provost Guzman emphasized the importance of adult forbearance on the part of all parties involved in emotionally charged disputes on campus, even when some of these parties are under-informed concerning their positions and unrealistic concerning their demands. They are correct, but Folt is a hypocrite.

When I retired from the USC faculty in 2022, two deans I had worked with offered me part-time teaching positions. President Folt intervened and blocked one of the appointments after I declined the other offer. According to those familiar with the situation, viewpoint discrimination primarily motivated her actions. It seems my ideas don’t align with hers—readers curious about that story can read “Why I’ll Never Be Allowed to Teach at USC Again.”

One of the reasons I retired from USC earlier than I originally planned is the relentless virtue signaling exhibited by USC’s leadership and the intrusive intellectual bankruptcy of their professed commitment to “diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice.” I am an unreconstructed, libertarian-leaning conservative who disagrees with most and possibly all of President Folt’s worldview because she and the rest of the progressive left are mostly wrong. It was part of my job to tolerate this, and I did, but I was due from her none of the forbearance she and Guzman were calling for from others.

Ideally, the central administration, which chose USC’s 2024 valedictorian from an eligible group based on a committee recommendation, would have more carefully vetted the selection. All eligible students are excellent and high-performing, but, likely, the final selection of a female South Asian engineering student who is also an observant Muslim involved a robust focus on identity. An equal focus on social media posts would have precluded substantial but pointless controversy.

Still, Folt got matters very right concerning USC’s protest encampments. The campus belongs to the University of Southern California, a California private, public-benefit nonprofit corporation. USC has the right to exclude others from its property, a contractual duty to perform services for its students, and a business need to satisfy its students’ parents. The protesters stepped between the institution and its obligations to suppress and sometimes preclude the university’s performance. Perhaps most of the faculty believe that USC has a moral duty to allow our students to protest. If so, the institution more than achieved this, even somewhat infringing on the school’s obligations to students trying to complete their classes and graduate successfully.

These fundamental priorities remain lost on at least a majority of USC’s faculty and a large share of the faculty in USC’s Academic Senate. As perversely amusing as it is to see Folt censured by her own, the step is not justified here. The resolution calling to censure Folt and Guzman combines an impromptu motion intended to communicate dissatisfaction with the performance of USC’s leadership with a well-thought-out resolution prepared by the Senate’s Executive Committee before the May 8th meeting. The Executive Committee’s effort called out the circumstances of concern to the faculty but focused on examining and improving the process by which the President and Provost made their decisions. Much of the Executive Committee’s language appears in the final resolution passed by the Senate, but others added to the call for censure. The Executive Board’s sponsorship is absent, indicating that they rejected censure as a friendly amendment to their motion. The resolution’s new sponsors are other members of the Academic Senate.

An initial motion from the Senate rank and file called for a vote of no confidence in the President and the Provost. This motion was tabled during the discussion but could have been very consequential. A comparable action in 2018 cascaded into the eventual resignation of former USC President C.L. Max Nikias. There was strong sentiment for proceeding with a no-confidence vote on May 8th, partly because the academic year was closing, and organized opportunities for the faculty to respond to the circumstances before them would soon recede. Wisely, the group concluded it was important that members of the Senate confer with the school faculties they represent before proceeding to a no-confidence vote. Since meeting during the summer was out of the question, the body settled on a compromise step. Their vote to censure formally communicates their collective dissatisfaction but does not involve taking a truly punitive step.

The matter might not be settled yet. The measure to censure the President and the Provost for their performance passed with 21 votes in favor, seven against, and six abstentions. Based on the Senate’s discussion, it’s possible that those who dissented or abstained believe censure is not enough and might prefer stronger action. They may still push for this, but they should reconsider. President Folt handled the most critical challenges presented by the protesters appropriately. While there are valid complaints the USC faculty could raise about her record, this issue is not one of them.

Photo by FASTILY — Wikimedia Commons & Photo from X; Edited by Jared Gould


  • James E. Moore, II

    James E. Moore, II is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California, where he was appointed in the Price School of Public Policy, the Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and the Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering. He served as founding director of the Transportation Engineering program, director of the Systems Architecting & Engineering program, department chair, vice dean for Academic Programs, and chair of the Engineering Faculty Council for four terms.

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8 thoughts on “Censure and Sensibility at USC

  1. Dr. Moore,
    Your article has many good points about poor decisions made by the usc administration, but it underestimates the USC president’s fiasco in not letting a valedictorian speak. First you claim that the valedictorian was selected by race. A major assumption and discredits a student’s performance . And second you underestimate the issue of free speech.

    ‘Jody Armour, a USC law professor who focuses on racial justice, called the decision to send scores of riot-gear-clad LAPD officers and USC campus police to oversee the dismantling of an encampment “the very antithesis of what we say we are as a university.”


    The valedictorian said she was not going to talk about any issues related to the social media repost. But even if she did. Even the US President Biden acknowledged the right for expression in his graduation speech when students and faculty protested and (unlike USC) their institution supported them.


    Even if the valedictorian would have talked about the earth is flat, she should have still talked and lessons learned. Instead the coverup escalated so much and the consequences led to a fiasco that will remain in USC’s history.

    As for an acknowledgement from the USC president herself, she mentions after the issue blew up “I don’t make every decision right,” she said.


    Perhaps the focus of your article should be “ USC faculty had many reason to censure Dr. Folt over the years . And the Valedictorian decision is yet another strong reason ‘.

    1. Please see my response to Tom, Dr. Bolt. You, he, and I agree that silencing the valedictorian after selecting and identifying her was a serious misstep for which censure is appropriate.

      I do not know the exact role of identity in USC’s selection of the valedictorian, but I do know USC’s administration and its values, which the leadership publishes, some of which are nonsense. Identity touches every decision our senior leadership makes. It certainly touched this one, but you are correct. Doing so unjustly discredits the individuals about whom the decisions are being made. USC’s leaders should stop.

      Prof. Armour is a kind and bright man, but he is wrong about the merits of USC’s decision to enforce its property rights. It is my experience that he is wrong about much, but I take his positions seriously. In this case and in his remarks to USC’s Academic Senate, he implicitly equates free speech and criminal trespass. They are different. I am a big fan of free speech, and a big fan of property rights. The university did not suppress the students’ speech rights, and the police are not the antithesis of what USC is as a university. The police may be, “the very antithesis of what we say we are as a university,” but as I assert in the article, Carol Folt is a known hypocrite. If Jody Armour is searching for principled consistency from USC’s leadership, this episode will not be his last disappointment.

    2. “‘Jody Armour, a USC law professor who focuses on racial justice, called the decision to send scores of riot-gear-clad LAPD officers and USC campus police to oversee the dismantling of an encampment “the very antithesis of what we say we are as a university.”

      So-called “fighting words” have always been considered a form of violence because violence is the inevitable response. So too here — these campers know that they are not “non-violent” in that they are forcing the university to be violent in response to them.

  2. Dear Professor Moore
    I have read a lot of your articles with which I agree. But in this case I believe there is a small error . Two things should not be conflated . Preventing the valedictorian from speaking and reactions with LAPD. For the first , I believe she absolutely deserves censure and condemnation .The purported claims of security have never been verified . And for the second , Please read below


    1. Thank you for the link, Tomahawk (Tom?). I was on Erroll Southers’ committee (briefly) and was part of the team that wrote the proposal to DHS for CREATE. Let me withhold any opinions about his performance there.

      The article identifies Southers’ doctorate as a Ph.D. It is, in fact, a professional doctorate, Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development (as I recall), that was granted by what is now USC’s Price School of Public Policy, not USC’s Graduate School.

      You and Dr. Bolt make the same point, and it is a good one. Silencing the valedictorian falls somewhere on the interval between egregious and foolish. A good case for censure can be made in response to this, and it is on the list of reasons the Academic Senate acted. I should have parsed the Senate’s rationale in the article, and if I had I would have certainly lined up with you and Dr. Bolt on the matter of the valedictorian and rejected the Senate’s grounds related to removing the encampments.

      1. Interesting discussion. And thank you for providing the clarifications. Yes, I believe the Valedictorian decision was deserving of censure.

        To put things in perspective, is this same Erroll Southers who violated privacy laws and was censured by the FBI? And then later misled congress about it? If so, the censure of USC president should not be a surprise. You are who you hang out with.




  3. ” The faculty group was mid-sized, with around 50 in the room and over 200 on Zoom. However, the presence of armed personnel seemed excessive and unprecedented, which annoyed the faculty from the start. Both Folt and Guzman reiterated that their actions were in response to concrete safety threats… Folt was considerably less persuasive than Guzman. Her consistent position was that the nature of the safety risks to which they were responding and how they had been identified and assessed were off-limits in any discussion with any group of faculty members.”[emphasis added]

    1: “Concrete safety threats” sounds to me like there was a specific person (or persons) whom they were afraid might show up, possibly with a weapon, and that the armed officers might become quite necessary on short notice. I think the concern about them being armed is an overreaction because they aren’t going to shoot the professors — nor would they need the guns were they to arrest the professors. It varies by state, but if they so much as fire a round (and don’t even hit anyone) there is going to be the state police and/or attorney general’s office investigating it — they’d better have a damn good reason for firing it, and they know that…

    I’ve been in situations like this — very much worried about a specific individual showing up and not able to tell everyone about it.

    2: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there are American college professors who are active members of Hamas. It’s really clear that there is a lot of support for it coming from certain faculty members at various IHEs — the FBI probably has been talking to her and heaven only knows what they have told her.’

    The other shoe on this is domestic terrorism — we don’t know what has been stopped, or who is currently conspiring with whom. And no, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a couple dozen professors arrested for Hamas involvement by the time this is all over — with all of the faculty openly supporting Team Hamas, you gotta figure that some have gone further than that, even if only donating to it.

    And then there’s this: https://www.campusreform.org/article/hamas-thanks-student-protesters-dubs-part-oct-7-flood-annihilate-jews/25512 Well???

    3: There is also the paranoia that evolved out of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
    How safety risks are identified and assessed absolutely must be off limits to any discussion with faculty because the faculty would scream bloody murder if they really knew what the administration was doing in its star chambers — and rightly so. It’s really right out of the Soviet Union and their concept of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia.

    And in this case there may also be some serious legal liability because if they’ve defined Jewish professors to be “a threat” merely because they are Observant Jews, said professors have one heck of a civil rights lawsuit….

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