She was a student at the University of Wisconsin during the Vietnam War and attending Kent State University when the campus shootings of 1970 took place. And while USF President Judy Genshaft said she knows what it’s like to be at a university during difficult times, neither of those events compares to the university experience that she faces today.
Her intent to fire professor Sami Al-Arian has caused a commotion on campus that has divided faculty members and students alike.
An assembly of graduate students voted Wednesday 28-1 that Al-Arian should not be fired. The unofficial tally was taken after Genshaft answered questions from the group of more than 60. Some left before the discussion was finished, and not everyone that remained until the end voted.
Patrick Cannon, president for the Graduate and Professional Student Organization, which sponsored the forum, wanted to see by a show of hands how students felt.
“It’s obvious the graduate students feel different,” Cannon said, referring to a vote two weeks ago by the Student Government senate, which voted to support Genshaft’s decision to terminate the tenured professor.
But Genshaft wasn’t concerned with votes. In fact, when Cannon suggested that the students decide whether to support the president by a show of hands once the question and answer session was finished, Genshaft said she hadn’t come for a vote. So she, along with Provost S. David Stamps and professor Susan Greenbaum, who also attended the forum, got up and left. Genshaft said a vote wasn’t part of the agreement to attend.
“I want to apologize,” said Cannon. “I didn’t see it as going against the agreement we had.”
He intended to write a letter of apology to the president right away.
Despite the way Wednesday’s forum ended, Cannon said he thought the president left with some things to think about.
“While the questions were pointed and had a critical edge, they weren’t dogmatic,” he said.
One question that stumped Genshaft, Stamps and Greenbaum came from Lowell Harris.
“How can we ward off the coming effects of our own internal Cold War?” asked Harris, a communication graduate student.After several looks back and forth between the panelists, Stamps emerged to offer a response.
“We are all concerned about the roles of society and the freedoms we all enjoy,” Stamps said.
Harris, who said he lived through the McCarthy era, said after the forum that at one time, there were communists on every corner; today, there are terrorists on every corner.
Genshaft said Al-Arian’s appearance on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor on Sept. 26 was a crisis for the university. Bill O’Reilly, the show’s host, accused Al-Arian of having terrorist ties.”The FBI reports Al-Arian’s case is still active … we hear that today,” said Genshaft.
O’Reilly’s nationally televised interview led to Al-Arian’s placement on paid leave on Sept. 27. Genshaft sent Al-Arian a letter of intent to be fired on Dec. 19. On Wednesday, Genshaft said she never intended for Al-Arian to permanently lose his job.
“I originally really hoped things would have calmed down for Al-Arian to come back,” she said.
But they didn’t. And Genshaft said more than a dozen death threats have come to Al-Arian and the university.
“It’s important for him to know that when he conducts these activities there are consequences,” Genshaft said. “As one policeman said, ‘Death threats don’t have an expiration date on them.'”
Cannon asked about protection by the university for Al-Arian’s views. He offered a simple analogy: Had Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. been a member of USF’s faculty during the ’60s, would the university protect him and stand up for his values?
“It’s a big mistake to make a parallel between what has happened on 9-11 and what happened in the past,” said Stamps. “What he says is free speech. All we’re addressing is the consequences of that speech.”
Later, Harris said he disagreed with Stamps.
“Learn history. Know your history. This history is surely relevant to us today,” Harris said.
He said professors receive tenure today because it was originally a way to protect those who spoke unpopular views during war times in the past.
Genshaft said Al-Arian violated the collective bargaining agreement when he went on The O’Reilly Factor by not saying he did not speak for the University of South Florida. She said his other activities have also contributed to the disruption on campus.
“Academic freedom at a university is not a guarantee that you can do anything you want and any way you want to do it,” Genshaft said. “You can’t say, ‘death to Israel,’ ‘damn Americans,’ ‘kill the Jews,’ and speak for the University of South Florida. If you are, you speak as an individual.”
Greenbaum said the university was trying to narrow academic freedom to fit a faculty member’s discipline. And that would only cause problems, she said. Before long, professors would be afraid to speak, Greenbaum said.
“It suggests controversy is not wanted at the University of South Florida,” Greenbaum said.
Genshaft said it’s not as though this is the first time Al-Arian has caused a disruption on campus. She said Al-Arian has spent more than 15 percent of his time at USF on paid leave and that more than $200,000 of tax payers’ money paid him to not work. Genshaft said roughly a million dollars in personnel time has been spent dealing with Al-Arian’s case.
Catherine Shannon-Arvanitopoulos, vice president for the GPSO, said she doesn’t care about the money. And had Al-Arian not been issued a letter of intent to be fired on Dec. 19 but given more time, all of this would have blown over, she said.
“By the way (Genshaft) presents her information, I feel she’s already made up her mind,” Shannon-Arvanitopoulos said.One student asked Genshaft what it would take for her to change her mind about firing Al-Arian. She said more discussion.
“More discussion? Apparently she hasn’t heard what she needs to hear,” Shannon-Arvanitopoulos said after the forum.Genshaft said whatever her decision, it won’t be a win for either side.
“I’m just seeing a lot of negatives,” she said.Janine Hargrett, a graduate student in the College of Student Affairs, was the one person to raise her hand Wednesday in support of firing Al-Arian.
“What did (Al-Arian) expect was going to be the outcome?” Hargrett asked.
She said that in her degree program, they are taught to “do no harm.”
As for Al-Arian: “Everything he has done since that time has done harm,” Hargrett said.
She said it’s unfair for students to be taught one thing and professors not to live up to those teachings.
For Gigi Brathwaite, a graduate student in applied anthropology, voting not to fire Al-Arian was somewhat of a career move.
“I’m more concerned with possibly having a future faculty position and what you can and cannot say,” Brathwaite said.Genshaft spoke with the American Association of United Professors on Tuesday. The AAUP is recognized nationally for governing the relationship between administrators and faculty. The AAUP also censured USF for the way former USF president John Allen dealt with another controversial professor.
Genshaft said it’s her intent to make sure USF isn’t censured again.
She said being censured isn’t something that takes place easily. The AAUP would investigate the university if it considered again censuring USF, and that process would take almost two years, Genshaft said.
“I feel that the press has added a scare factor to this that has got people quite upset,” Genshaft said. “And me too – until I got information.”
The president said other universities that have been censured include Stanford, Columbia and the State University of New York.Greenbaum said, “The Board of Trustees has said they will stand by President Genshaft’s decision. I will only believe that if the president’s decision goes against them.”
Genshaft said Greenbaum’s comment was unfair.
“I care about my own reputation, and I have to make my own decisions. There aren’t any gains for me from this,” Genshaft said.
“I’m not a rubber stamp for the Board.”