The University of Southern California held its commencement Friday in as normal an atmosphere as possible--as normal as things could be with military helicopters flying overhead, a handful of National Guard troops on campus and a student body shocked to find some favorite grocery and liquor stores burned down nearby.
To be sure, the nearly 7,800 students who received their degrees were not denied pomp and circumstance. USC's 109th spring graduation had colorful processions of robed professors, stirring marches and even Hollywood glamour, with actor Kirk Douglas in attendance to receive an honorary doctorate.
Still, last week's riots were on nearly everyone's mind, even though USC's main campus was spared the damage that adjacent neighborhoods suffered south of downtown. Turnout of parents and friends, about 15,000, was down slightly from previous years because of lingering fears, a campus security official said.
"It was a little smaller. But it was not what one might have expected given what Los Angeles has gone through," USC security chief Steven Ward said. "Most students and parents get to go through this ceremony only once and that really prevailed. It was important to them not to miss it." The school gave no thought to postponing the commencement once the troubles died down last week, Ward said.
From the podium in front of the Doheny Library, USC President Steven B. Sample devoted his entire commencement address to the turmoil's aftermath, urging graduates to get involved in the rebuilding and offering USC's expertise in various fields. He was pinch-hitting as speaker for Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and current leader in the Georgian Republic. Shevardnadze canceled his USC visit because of political troubles at home.
"We have an opportunity to take all that is good about Los Angeles--the creative spirit, the optimism, the essential decency--and create a community in which our children and grandchildren will be able to live together in peace and mutual prosperity. We must all accept responsibility for helping to bring about this renaissance of Los Angeles," Sample said.
At times Sample's words were drowned out by the loud whir of military helicopters taking off from a staging area at the nearby Coliseum. Later, with help from National Guard troops and radio communications, USC officials managed to halt those flights.
Just a minute's walk from the main commencement podium, three National Guard soldiers from the large contingent in Exposition Park stood guard with campus and city policemen. Many students, wearing their black graduation gowns, took turns posing for photographs with the uniformed guardsmen. "We want to thank them and let them know we appreciate that they're here," Gamble Madsen, who just received her bachelor's degree in art history, said after her impromptu photo session with the soldiers.
Elsewhere, more traditional graduation photos were being taken. For example, Robert Mahikoa was up to his cheeks in fragrant and colorful leis his mother had carried in an ice chest on a flight from their home in Hawaii. While posing with friends, Mahikoa said he was gratified that the commencement had not been postponed or canceled because of the riots. "Things are more relaxed now," the undergraduate history major said, recalling how fires came close to his off-campus apartment.
During the last few days, USC has conducted a massive phone and mail campaign, hoping to convince prospective students and their parents that the campus is safe. Meanwhile, the unrest outside the school's gates has triggered an effort by some faculty members to increase the number of minorities among their ranks.
A petition being distributed Friday among faculty and staff contended that less than 4% of professors are African-Americans, Latinos or Korean-Americans, "the three ethnic groups most adversely affected by the unrest." A USC spokesman said he could not confirm those figures. The petition also called for more hiring of those minorities in non-teaching positions and the establishment of seminars on race, poverty and urban problems next semester.
This year's valedictorian was Nick Laurence Tan Lim, an economics major. Honorary degrees were given to David H. Blackwell, mathematics and statistics scholar at UC Berkeley; Janet Davison Rowley, a professor and noted researcher in molecular genetics at the University of Chicago; and to Douglas, who has been involved with USC's School of Cinema-Television. The day's only standing ovation was reserved for Marilyn Zumberge as she accepted a posthumous honorary doctorate of laws for her husband, James H. Zumberge, who died last month just a year after he retired as USC president.