The USF Faculty Senate worked to approve a statement Wednesday in which it will support President Judy Genshaft’s decision in placing Professor Sami Al-Arian on paid leave.
The Senate debated the wording of the statement in which they sought to support Genshaft and academic freedom without professing Al-Arian’s innocence or guilt.
Genshaft’s decision to place Al-Arian on leave came in the wake of Al-Arian’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor on Sept 26. Host Bill O’Reilly accused Al-Arian and the university of having terrorist connections.
Senate member John Warrick said the faculty needs to show it stands behind Genshaft’s decision.
“We, as a Faculty Senate, should not be concerned about the way she handled it, but in support,” Warrick said.
Much of the debate was centered around the wording of the document. Some senators said the wording should be carefully chosen to reflect support for Genshaft’s decision without any feelings toward Al-Arian.
“I agree with the president’s concerns for safety,” said Sen. Sarah Mandel during her remarks. “We are supportive of our president, and we are not making a statement.”
Mandel said she believes the university has an image problem from The O’Reilly Factor’s national coverage.
“The outside world doesn’t understand who or what we are,” Mandel said. “Right now we have to be very concerned of our image.”
A major factor in the debate was the idea of academic freedom, in which a professor has protection to speak freely about beliefs.
Professor Roy Weatherford, who is USF’s faculty union president and appeared on The O’Reilly Factor Tuesday in defense of academic freedom, spoke to the Senate about the topic during Wednesday’s session. He said there has been a great deal of concern from the faculty and the public.
“There is more concern in the faculty community about this issue than any other in my history of involvement in the last 20 years,” he said. “I have never received so many comments on anything I did or proposed.”
Weatherford said there has been debate among the faculty as to whether academic freedom was protected in Al-Arian’s case.
“There is a number of USF faculty that believe the principle of academic freedom has been violated at USF and that Professor Al-Arian has not had his rights defended as strongly as they should be,” Weatherford said. “(Others believe) that Professor Al-Arian has not been sufficiently punished.”
Al-Arian, who denied the accusations, was investigated by the FBI two years ago, but there was never enough evidence to charge him with a crime. He was not present at the Senate meeting.
Weatherford said the opinion that Al-Arian should be fired is more prevalent among the public. He said much of the faculty supports the principle of academic freedom.
“We’re concerned to see (academic freedom) was maintained and upheld,” Weatherford said.
“Most of (the faculty) believes the university did act responsibly.”
Weatherford said he urged the Senate to consider the principles of academic freedom in their deliberations.
“Gains we made in civil rights, women’s rights, gays’ rights and academic freedom have not been made by people sitting in their offices drinking white wine and telling each other how much they believe in these principles,” Weatherford said.
“The gains are made by people going out in the public saying what they believe in even if it causes pain.”
During the ensuing debate, senators talked about whether academic freedom was violated in this case.
Mandell said the question must be asked as to the difference between academic freedom and dangerous activity in a case such as this.
“Where is the line between safety of our country and academic freedom?” she asked.
Professor Harry Vanden said the faculty must support academic freedom without supporting or denying Al-Arian’s innocence.
“Dr. Al-Arian deserves to enjoy academic freedom,” he said. “We shouldn’t stray from that nor support our colleague.”
Some Senate members talked about their impressions of Al-Arian. Senators said the line between right and wrong in this situation was hard to find. Sen. Sherman Dorn said this extraordinary circumstance faced by the Senate is difficult, though not unprecedented.
“I think it’s a very ambiguous situation as to whether Dr. Genshaft made the proper decision,” Dorn said.