USF President Judy Genshaft’s spacious office overlooks a plaza the university dedicated to America’s most celebrated civil rights activist: Martin Luther King Jr. But these days, Genshaft finds herself accused by some that she has violated one of the country’s most sacred rights: free speech.
Genshaft’s decision to pursue the termination of controversial professor Sami Al-Arian has polarized a university and captured national interest, garnering copy and airtime in The New York Times and Dateline NBC, to cite two.
On Thursday, Genshaft spoke about Al-Arian, the threat of being blacklisted by the American Association of University Professors, and the reasons behind her decisions.
Genshaft recognized that this complex case is “nationally visible, and precedent-setting,” but she said what is most important is to view the situation holistically, not just since Sept. 26, when allegations of Al-Arian’s terrorist ties were reintroduced by talk show host Bill O’Reilly.
“You cannot take this semester as an isolated incident. You must take Professor Al-Arian’s past and present in order to make a decision about the future,” Genshaft said. “This is a person with a history. This isn’t somebody that just has had some issues that are involved in just one semester.”
That history, which includes Al-Arian’s association with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, former USF adjunct professor and current leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, first came to light in a PBS documentary titled “Jihad in America.”
The creator of that film is Steven Emerson, a terrorism consultant for NBC whose credibility came under fire in 1995 when he wrongly blamed Islamic fundamentalists for the Oklahoma City Bombing.
On Genshaft’s desk sits Emerson’s latest book, “The Terrorists Among Us,” a book she has recommended to those who wish to better understand the past, which she said is crucial for rendering a decision.
Genshaft said in the wake of Sept. 11, Emerson has been “resurrected with great esteem,” but said even if people do not take his word as the absolute truth, Al-Arian’s terrorist ties are evident in other forms.
“I think one of the video tapes that we’ve seen actually has Al-Arian in the video tape at these jihad meetings,” Genshaft said. “What it really does is substantiates a lot of those allegations.”
Furthermore, Genshaft characterized the Department of Justice’s acknowledgement last week of an ongoing and active investigation into the actions of Al-Arian as “profound.”
“You ask people from around the country, and it’s just unheard of,” she said, referring to the typical FBI policy of not disclosing the status of a case.
Genshaft also received a briefing from head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, following his briefing from the FBI two weeks ago. She said their conversation was confidential but described it as “very helpful.”
Nevertheless, Al-Arian has never been charged with a crime and has adamantly denied any sympathy toward terrorist organizations.
Some say Genshaft was too quick to decide to pursue his firing, making her decision on Dec. 19, only hours after the Board of Trustees recommended that she do so.
Al-Arian said in an interview last month that he had acknowledged that he posed a safety threat on campus and would have been willing to discuss options with the president, such as teaching via the Internet or through telecourses. He even said he’d take a leave of absence.
So why not meet with him before deciding to oust him?
“The recommendation from the board was to terminate because he had violated a contract. Now, if he had violated a contract, then what’s to negotiate?” Genshaft said, referring to USF’s collective bargaining agreement.
A private attorney hired by USF told the board on Dec. 19 that because Al-Arian did not disassociate himself from the university when he appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, he broke the portion of the collective bargaining agreement that states that faculty must indicate that they are not an “institutional representative unless specifically authorized as such.”
In addition, Genshaft said that Al-Arian has never requested to meet with her. Instead, she said, he has requested a meeting with the BOT, but Chairman Dick Beard denied the request.
When asked if Al-Arian’s comments such as “Death to Israel” and his avid opposition toward Israeli occupation made Genshaft personally motivated, Genshaft, who is Jewish, became infuriated.
“That has nothing to with this decision. I am the president of an institution that has to deal with 40,000 students on the campus at any one time, and I’m responsible for their safety, and that’s what matters to me,” she said.
In fact, Genshaft said the issue isn’t necessarily as religiously divided as it may seem.
“I’ve had many people come up to me at meetings and hand me a business card and say, ‘I am Arabic, and he does not represent us, and my view is you should fire him,'” she said.
Genshaft said that she has been gathering “tremendous and constant advice” from the deans, the provost, vice presidents, the chief of police, students, parents, and more than 200 faculty since January.
She has been meeting on a daily basis with 12-member faculty groups.
But what about Al-Arian? Genshaft said she doesn’t know what the purpose of meeting with him would be, and in order to do so, she would have to seek advice from her legal counsel.
In less than two weeks, the AAUP will send a three-member panel to investigate whether Genshaft violated the academic freedom of Al-Arian.
But Genshaft has two problems with the AAUP’s visit: one, she questions the timing of their visit, as it falls in the middle of USF’s spring break – a time when most students and faculty will be off campus.
Two, she said that she has yet to make a decision and that she has only written a letter of intent to terminate Al-Arian.
“We think that it’s not a good time to be here on spring break, even though they are sending one person back afterwards (March 21). We need to make it very clear that this is their choice in coming in at this time,” Genshaft said. “We think it’s very premature. There has not been any decision made, and I don’t know how they could write a report before any action has been taken. There hasn’t been anything violated at this point.”
The report, which will help a national AAUP committee decide if USF should be censured, is already flawed, Genshaft said, because the “timing is inopportune.”
“You must understand however, that AAUP is a union. It’s not an accreditation,” Genshaft said.
“And there are many other universities that have been censured like Stanford and Columbia and Temple. I will do everything I can so that we are not censured but within good judgment.”
Genshaft said there is a general feeling of fear and panic among students who think that if USF is censured, it will cheapen their degrees.
Censure “is just a statement; it doesn’t mean anything more than that. It’s just a statement, period,” Genshaft said. “It’s not something I want to have happen, but it doesn’t take anything away from the university in the sense of funding or accreditation or anything like that.”
Genshaft said that she is deliberately taking her time before she makes her decision so she can gather as much information as possible. She said, because Al-Arian is still being paid, there is no time frame as to when she has to render a decision.
She said, however, she would hold off on her decision until after the AAUP visits but wouldn’t say if she would wait until after they have written their report.
“They will come here before I make my decision,” Genshaft said.
And that decision has been weighing heavily on her mind since Dec. 19.
“I go to bed thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it,” she said.
- Contact Ryan Meehan firstname.lastname@example.org