Protesters interrupted the inauguration of USC’s first female elected president Friday morning as Trojans across generations gathered at Alumni Park for the ceremony.
As a cloud of white doves was released into the crowd and Dr. Carol L. Folt began her first formal address as the 12th USC president, the cries of protesters carried across the quad.
The demonstrators chanted “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” while carrying a sign that read “#SilenceSam.” The poster referenced the Confederate statue “Silent Sam” that was removed from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus under Folt’s orders before she resigned as chancellor.
This protest also followed the vandalization of a bust of Rufus VonKleinsmid at the VonKleinsmid Center prior to the ceremony, according to the Department of Public Safety. VonKleinsmid, USC’s fifth president, has sparked controversy on campus as he is known for being a eugenicist.
“I do want to say that universities are open to students protesting,” Folt said on stage. “I always am too, and I think we have to always remember that.”
In an interview with Annenberg Media after the ceremony, she stated how protests are an integral part of campus culture and democracy.
“I have been around protests in my entire life, from the time I was a student myself to when I was at Dartmouth and UNC and here,” she said. “I really believe that if you are in a university that students do not protest sometimes, I don’t know what that university is."
When asked about the VKC vandalization, Folt said “That’s new on my plate. We already do though have a committee in place that looks into nomenclature, so I am pretty sure that we will get to that pretty quickly.”
After the protest, Folt restarted her speech and assured the audience that she empathized with the community’s concerns and was committed to making a change.
“I want to assure you that we will continue to tackle these problems until they are corrected,” she said. “We are going to do it with urgency, and we’re going to do it with your involvement, with the involvement of the community and of our governance structures.”
Folt also described plans she wanted to pursue during her tenure, such as overhauling the admissions process, increasing financial aid, improving mental health services on campus and committing to sustainability efforts.
Since arriving at USC, she has prioritized sustainability by reintroducing public transportation subsidies to faculty and advocating to host the MSNBC Climate Forum even though it fell on the same day as her inauguration.
“Sustainability needed to start yesterday,” Folt said in the post-ceremony interview. “So we start. We started last week with changing the way we are subsidizing the transit. I am gonna go to the climate protest. We need to get moving.”
Activism and accountability were prominent themes touched on during the ceremony. Rick Caruso, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, highlighted Folt’s presidency as an opportunity for redemption during “the most turbulent period in USC’s history.”
“Redemption is the act of recovery, of reclamation, of repossession,” he said. “It is the work of retrieving something that has been lost ... we are here knowing that something has been lost. We are here to get it back.”
Folt’s leadership follows the footprints of Wanda Austin, who assumed the interim presidency after President Emeritus C.L. Max Nikias resigned in May 2018 in light of the sexual assault allegations against former student health center gynecologist George Tyndall that arose earlier that month.
Upon arrival on campus, Folt discussed viable ways she wanted to address the many challenges facing the USC community, especially since she was elected amid the nationwide college admissions scandal involving the university.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also spoke at the ceremony and described Folt as “the right person at the right moment” and a good leader “who know[s] how to lead with fearlessness, with humility, who know[s] how to listen, and who can lead with love.”
Some in attendance shared what they were looking forward to in Folt’s presidency.
“I think it’s great that we’re able to bring in a fresh perspective and have someone who is really excited about making USC community the best community it can be,” USC senior and attendee Ryan Gunderson said.
Daniel Cassidy, an audience member who graduated from USC Sol Price School of Public Policy in 1959 and witnessed every university president since then, said he believes the future of the school is in good hands.
“I can’t predict what she’ll do,” Cassidy said. “I think she’ll be a strong leader and think she’ll be successful, I think she will straighten out the ship. We will now start being the old USC… back to being a Trojan family again, which I think we drifted away from for the past couple of years.”
Michael Tseng, Nicolette Walker and Ruby Yuan have contributed to this report.