University of Southern California Confronts an Unfamiliar Era of Protest

The scene was as raucous as the rest of the montage that has played out for days at colleges around the nation: Demonstrators swarming and calling for a permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. A leafy quad strewn with camping equipment. Police officers wearing helmets and face shields.

But in Los Angeles, the talk has been less about what was happening than about where it was happening: at the University of Southern California, a private, 144-year-old West Coast institution hardly known for intense political rebellion.

“This is not the first university you think of when you think of protests and occupying the central quad and confronting the police,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former longtime Los Angeles County supervisor and city councilman. “Berkeley and Harvard? Sure. But U.S.C.?”

Entwined for generations with Los Angeles’s power structure, U.S.C. has long held a special place in the nation’s second-largest city — not just as a school, but also as a community pillar in a sprawling metropolis where fixed points are hard to find.

From the start, the university was a local project, founded in 1880 in a mustard field donated by early Los Angeles real estate developers and bankers. Its donors and alumni include a who’s who of Southern California show business, law, medicine and commerce. The mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, attended U.S.C.; so did Rick Caruso, the real estate mogul she defeated in 2022.

Unlike some other California schools, the University of Southern California is not known for intense activism.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times
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