‘Toxic atmosphere of hatred.’ USC faculty outraged over response to student’s tweets

Tommy Trojan stands guard over a quiet USC campus.
Tommy Trojan stands guard over USC’s campus. Several faculty members recently signed a letter urging officials to rebuke a student for tweets she sent earlier in the year.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

More than 60 faculty members at USC have signed an open letter urging the university’s leadership to “publicly and explicitly rebuke” a student for several inflammatory comments she made online earlier in the year, including a tweet saying she wanted to “kill every motherf---ing Zionist.”

In the Dec. 1 letter addressed to USC President Carol Folt, Provost Charles Zukoski and board of trustees chair Rick Caruso — the latest in a series of letters from several of the same signatories — the faculty asked officials to rebuke Yasmeen Mashayekh, a 21-year-old civil engineering student, and “to distance USC from her hateful statements.”

“The silence of our leadership on this matter is alienating, hurtful, and depressing,” the letter read. “It amounts to tacit acceptance of a toxic atmosphere of hatred and hostility.”


On Dec. 3, Folt and Zukoski responded with a letter saying that the matter “has disturbed us deeply as we understand very well the hurtful impact of the statements on Twitter that you quoted, not only to those who are Jewish but also to those of us who know how harmful antisemitism is when left unchecked.”

The university leaders said that over the summer, when the university first learned about the tweets, which have since been taken down, they removed Mashayekh from her paid mentoring position in the Viterbi School of Engineering. Screenshots of the deleted tweets were republished just before Thanksgiving by “outside organizations” that encouraged people to write to school officials about Mashayekh, who serves as a diversity, equity and inclusion senator for the Viterbi Graduate Student Assn.

Folt and Zukoski noted that it would violate state law “for the university to remove anyone from a student-elected position based on protected speech.”

Officials said the university has taken steps to “deepen our understanding of manifestations of antisemitism on campus” and has an initiative that works on empowering young people to recognize and counter hate in their communities.

But the administration’s response hasn’t satisfied many of the faculty members who signed the letter, or Mashayekh and her supporters.

“I don’t feel safe on campus,” Mashayekh, who is Palestinian, said in an interview, noting that she has received several death threats, which intensified again recently after her image and deleted tweets were reposted by groups that compile dossiers of students and academics they consider to be anti-Israel.


Mashayekh’s supporters are circulating a letter urging university officials to make a statement “that demonstrates support for a student who is currently being disproportionately singled out.”

For USC chemistry professor Curt Wittig, who signed the open letter, it’s critical to think about the current situation within a broader historical context. We are living in troubling and politically explosive times, Wittig said, and if some major upheaval happens, history suggests that people will look for scapegoats.

“Jews were the main target of that scapegoating in the first half of the 20th century,” Wittig said, noting that there has been a recent spike in hate crimes, including many antisemitic hate crimes.

Colleagues have heard directly from some Jewish students who told them they were deeply frightened by the tweets, Wittig said, adding that he thought the university’s response earlier in the month read like “a deflection memo.” It fell far short, Wittig said, of the unambiguous moral stand he thought was warranted in response to the highly offensive tweets.

“We expect something a little more forceful,” he said.

Judith Hirsch, a professor of biological sciences, agreed.

“If a Jewish student had written the same tweets about Palestinians,” she said, “we would be equally distressed.”

Mashayekh, who is finishing up her undergraduate civil engineering degree but also has started taking courses toward a graduate degree, said she informed the school of the targeted harassment she has been facing for several months and hasn’t been satisfied with its response. In addition to losing her paid mentoring position, she said, her name was recently removed from the Viterbi Graduate Student Assn. website, where her role as a diversity, equity and inclusion senator involves planning events such as dinners and movie nights. Mashayekh said she worries that she won’t be able to find a job in the future or pay off her loans.

Mashayekh recently tweeted that her goal is “to normalize the language of resistance regardless of what that looks like.” Asked if, in retrospect, she would have done anything differently, she said, “Obviously, I didn’t expect any of this,” adding that she sent the tweets earlier in the year from an anonymous account, which was eventually tied back to her.


“I just really wish I didn’t have to think about what I would change,” she said. “I wish people didn’t expect Palestinians to be the perfect victims.”

This is the third such incident to roil the troubled campus since August 2020 involving Middle East politics and free speech, as well as accusations of racism and antisemitism. Faculty members, student groups, alumni, outside activists and others have entered the fray and taken sides in the tangle of controversies.

The two USC students didn’t know each other — one a student government leader who is Jewish, the other a Black undergraduate who wanted to impeach her. But they collided over racism, anti-Semitism and Zionism in a brouhaha that has roiled the school, sparked social media attacks and prompted new debate over age-old questions about the line between free speech and hate speech.

Oct. 18, 2020

In an interview, Zukoski, the university’s provost, said he was limited in what he could say specifically about the case because of privacy issues but said there was no retribution involved in removing the student from the paid mentoring position, adding that she was offered other opportunities on campus.

Zukoski said the current situation has been difficult for university officials to navigate; not only does it involve an intractable geopolitical conflict, he said, but it touches on the reality that much of hate speech is legally protected.

And then there’s the added layer that much of this is playing out online.

“How to handle social media and the amplifier it gives topics,” he said, “is a national issue that we’re all grappling with.”