Photo by Annette Ricchiazzi

By Annette Ricchiazzi / Original to ScheerPost

My daughter, a fourth generation USC Trojan, graduated last Friday. It happened without incident, and she is now a USC alum. I took into the two days of events the memory of my own USC student experience, which eventually led me to be a USC employee and avid alum for over three decades, and now the parent of two graduates. I worked for two former USC presidents and one interim president, was founding editor of a USC alumni magazine, and helped lead the office that planned commencement activities as well as 300 other university events each year. 

As I absorbed everything last week, my views are colored by these experiences, as well as my day job working with nonprofit leaders. Others have different and unique relationships with USC and many universities across the country. Whatever your connections are to higher education, shouldn’t we all expect that people who run significant institutions like USC show up on their most important days and during critical times? In other words, behave like adults?  There is a real danger to the way these leaders have performed over the past month becoming normalized if we condone it. It must be questioned and challenged until a higher version of true leadership steps into the void.  

President Folt replaced the canceled main commencement ceremony with a “Trojan Family Graduate Celebration” at the Coliseum. My family had no intention of going. Attending would be a way of sanctioning how we got here. But last Thursday morning, my Class of 2024 daughter turned to me and said, “I think I want to go. I just want to celebrate with my class.” OK. I get it. She wants to hold on to what the last few days and hours as a USC student mean. We went to honor that with her.

In my 30 years of being involved with USC, it was one of the strangest events I have ever attended. It was like the desperate way we tried to preserve important occasions during the pandemic—drive through graduations, trick-or-treating out of the trunks of cars, birthday celebrations on front lawns with everyone spread out and shouting at each other. Only we are no longer in a global pandemic. In some places they call this putting lipstick on a pig. To us, it felt like trying to put a Band-Aid on a stab wound. 

With skill and I’m sure some last-minute rehearsals, the band played, performers performed, and speeches happened, all occurring in a small space at one end of the Coliseum as the modest crowd faced a field that was completely covered with a white tarp and was not to be used due to preparation for the Marshall School of Business commencement the following day. The small crowd, which seemed to be mostly made up of parents and out of town guests who didn’t own much USC gear, also largely didn’t participate in the traditional USC cheers or rally calls, so the overall energy was low. Dean Soni, the head of religious life at USC, opened the celebration with inspired remarks that I wondered if he had planned to use that night at the traditional interfaith, multi-cultural baccalaureate ceremony that should have taken place three hours earlier, but was “changed” to be a part of this party at the mostly unavailable Coliseum. 

There were fireworks, an impressive drone show, alumni speakers, and video tributes from coaches, deans and famous alumni. There was that special Class of 2024 Travis Scott hat that my daughter refused to take. There were hot dogs and popcorn. What there was not, in fact what was glaringly absent, was President Carol Folt or any USC senior leadership. 

This event, which was announced a week before noting that “President Folt has created a major kick-off…” did not include its mastermind—Carol Folt. Imagine a director not attending the premier of her film, and all the producers and everyone on the creative team blowing it off too. The other thing it did not include was the student blessing. The official announcement about the fate of the 2024 baccalaureate ceremony was a section that eventually showed up on the commencement website and said “this year’s in-person Baccalaureate Ceremony will be changed to an in-person blessing for our graduates” at the Coliseum celebration. It appears they forgot the only remaining component they promised would happen from the “changed” (not canceled) baccalaureate ceremony. 

On commencement day, we arrived on campus early to avoid long lines. There were bag checks, metal detectors, multiple digital tickets required, fences everywhere, and a noticeable security presence in the form of LAPD, USC Dept. of Public Safety officers, and lots of event staff directing people movement. Campus was quiet until the Trojan Marching Band arrived in the main plaza to play while many of us waited in line to take photos in front of the barricaded Tommy Trojan statue. There were stands selling Class of 2024 USC merch and refreshments. There were hundreds of proud families and smiling soon-to-be USC alumni.

We went on to my daughter’s School of Dramatic Arts ceremony which was produced in the Bing Theatre with spectacular detail and tribute to why we were all there—a celebration of accomplished theatrical artists who gave the biggest ovation when one of their own, a student who was arrested two weeks earlier on campus and was told he could not graduate with his class, walked across the stage to receive his diploma after much pushing against that original decision took place on his behalf by many on that stage. 

The ceremony included a keynote address by a dear friend I graduated with almost 30 years ago to the day in the same theater. Dr. Anthony Sparks, a three-time USC degree holder, stepped up to address students at both SDA ceremonies after the other keynote speaker backed out, and who so accurately said: “It’s clear from life around here over the past few weeks, that nobody knows nothing. And that some of the adults in your lives are clearly making some of this -ish up as they go along, and just hope it all works out. So, graduates, lower the bar for yourselves.”  

We left the ceremony, and the campus was buzzing with the joy, pride and coming together of people from all over the world celebrating this most important day of the year for USC. But what was not there on this day either, what was glaringly absent again, was President Folt. She posted photos backstage in Bovard Auditorium with Dr. Dre and in her office with Billy Jean King, but we never saw her, nor was there a message from her on the big screens in the main center of campus where looped social media posts from happy students and university groups were rolling as the band played and doves were supposed to be released. The official schedule on the USC commencement website lists 50 events and ceremonies between Wednesday-Saturday last week. Did President Folt attend a single one of them?

Absent as well were any overt or disruptive protests—even on the streets around USC. I could have taken posters and signs from my car where we parked on Adams Blvd., walked to the corner of Hoover and Exposition, across from one of the main entrances of campus, and started a protest. I saw no one officially ready to jump in and stop me from doing so. Was the security perimeter around campus that we heard so much about in logistics and ticketing information truly necessary or even real? Were there continued threats to everyone’s safety who went to campus last week? The fact is we all did go to USC. We were all there, all the same people that would have been on campus on the same day for the main event that was canceled because we were told it was too dangerous for us to be on campus for it. 

The absent things are not mutually exclusive—especially President Folt and the protests. They are, in fact, concordant. They go together. This is likely why she changed, or let’s be clear, she canceled the easily secured baccalaureate ceremony. It is probably the reason she did not come to the Coliseum’s graduate celebration or supply a video message. It is why she didn’t make any official or casual appearances on commencement day to address or greet the graduates, parents and families who were there to honor and uphold the traditions of the institution for which she serves as chief executive. 

The fear of backlash aimed at President Folt and her administration is likely why she was not present to students and families in any noted capacity last week, and why it doesn’t appear she attended any events where groups of graduating students would be present. There seems to have been an understanding, proven over the past month, that neither she nor any USC senior leader would face us and show up, so the security threats and protests didn’t materialize—other than in messages on graduate mortarboards, small patches sewn on sashes, or if you consider it a protest, in prolonged standing ovations for students who were arrested and a valedictorian who was canceled. 

How does bad leadership turn into bad behavior? When those of us who have kids face times when we must tell our children to do something that they don’t want to do, especially in the realm of life lessons, we explain it to them by saying, “I know you don’t want to do this, but you have to try.” Or “I know this is hard, but it is the right thing to do.” Or “This may feel uncomfortable, but once you get through it, you will learn from it, and it will help you do better next time.”

We say these things to developing young minds, and altered versions are said by coaches to teams, and good managers to the people they manage, because the result of not doing what is advised could lead to bad behavior—running and hiding, not meeting obligations, pretending the rest of us are not intelligent enough to notice or remember what you have done, not being accountable for your mistakes or taking responsibility, lowering the bar—like advised in the remarks by my friend Tony—for everyone that is part of the thing you affected with your actions.

There was no video message from President Folt during the graduate celebration at the Coliseum last week or through social media. There wasn’t a message from a single trustee. Why didn’t these graduates deserve a public acknowledgement from the leaders of the university they attend at the main communal event they planned? Why was that so hard? Deans, alumni, and coaches provided taped messages. 

When bad leadership continues to fester, it turns into bad behavior and results in this. The inability of these people to be human, act like adults, and to simply say, from their own mouths, “Congratulations. I recognize you.” To show up at the party that they invited us all to. To hold up the bar, to get crushed under it if that is what’s needed, but to keep holding it up whatever it takes. 

My daughter, a good number of her fellow graduates, and many young people in colleges across the country are pleading for the bar to be held up by the people who are in power and partially control where the bar is set. They are begging for the rest of us to demand it is held up too—not so we can reach complete agreement on specific ideas or beliefs—but in the understanding, which lots of people are taught when they are young, and the senior leaders at USC seemed to have forgotten last week, that “This may feel uncomfortable, but once you get through it, you will learn from it, and it will help you do better next time.”

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Annette Ricchiazzi

Annete Ricchiazzi is the founder and principal consultant of MissionLab
(, an independent consultant firm located in Los
Angeles with long-term clients focused on policy, education, social justice,
homelessness, the arts, healthcare, and philanthropy. She has specific expertise in
nonprofit organizational development and strategic planning, with a focus on leadership
capacity building to drive outcomes for her clients.

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