With USF President Judy Genshaft sitting only 25 feet away, Roy Weatherford, president for USF’s faculty union lambasted her decision to fire tenured professor Sami Al-Arian before a lecture on academic freedom. Weatherford spoke Thursday for 15 minutes about the dismissal of Al-Arian and criticized Genshaft’s reasons for pursuing his termination.
Weatherford said that the dismissal of Al-Arian would set a new principle for the dismissal of faculty.
“He is being charged with having disrupted the university by becoming the object of death threats,” said Weatherford. “Those of us who were objects of death threats during the civil rights movements from the KKK, which really does kill people, are glad that our university did not abandon us at that time.”
Weatherford said that Genshaft, citing that Al-Arian’s dismissal was in part due to his failure to dissociate himself from the university when he appeared on The O’Reilly Factor in late September, was applying standards to Al-Arian that she did not apply to other faculty members.
“Since I myself twice went on The O’Reilly Factor and did not dissociate myself from the university, I presume that, if it’s legitimate for them to fire him, then it’s twice as legitimate for them to fire me,” Weatherford said.
Genshaft could not be reached for comment, and she did not respond to Weatherford’s criticism.
In a humorous reference to one of the reasons behind Al-Arian’s dismissal, several members of the faculty sported badges proclaiming “I do not speak for USF,” while some students wore badges that said, “Sami Al-Arian speaks for me.”
Weatherford said that he was concerned with the attitude toward academic freedom exhibited by both USF and the student senate.
“I am worried about why does our university care so little about academic freedom? Why in particular did our student body vote, through their student senate, that safety and security is more important than principle?”
Following Weatherford’s speech, Robert O’Neil, director for the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, presented a lecture entitled “Faculty Academic Freedom and Tenure in a Troubled World.”
After his lecture, but before taking questions from the floor, O’Neil said that he would not comment on any issues affecting the university at the moment. At no point during the lecture did O’Neil make mention of the name Sami Al-Arian.
O’Neil said that academic freedom was still important today, but that tenure is not inviolable.
“Academic freedom is as much needed today as it was during the McCarthy era,” O’Neil said. “But faculty tenure, obviously, is not a guarantee of life time employment. It is not a form of job security.”
O’Neil said that in cases of loss of tenure, the burden of proof belongs to the administration.
“A professor, like a citizen, is presumed innocent until the contrary has been proved,” O’Neil said.
One faculty member asked whether the Supreme Court had ever ruled on cases involving the suppression of freedom of speech based upon the threats of violence made by third parties.
O’Neil said according to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment protects all advocacy except direct incitement of a specific lawless action under circumstances likely to create a violation.
Harry Vanden, a political science professor and union member, asked what the consequences of censure from the American Association of University Professors might be for the university.
O’Neil said that in his experience institutions taking the threat of censure lightly are not being sincere.
“Institutions have at some point treated (censure) lightly or even scoffed at the prospect,” O’Neil said. “When it has become imminent, they have become exceedingly concerned and taken fairly drastic steps.”
The AAUP will visit USF during spring break to investigate whether Genshaft violated academic freedom.
O’Neil said that the consequences of censure should not be underestimated.
“Does (censure) mean that one would not accept a position in the English department at New York University? No,” O’Neil said. “But it does mean that one might think twice if it’s not NYU, and one might think more than twice about the significance of being on that list.”
Speaking after the lecture, Vanden said that the situation at USF had affected the university’s reputation nationwide.
“I have had colleagues call from all over the country asking me what’s going on here. They said that they would not consider applying for such an institution,” Vanden said.
One USF professor, who is not tenured, wished to remain anonymous, citing fear of losing his job.
“Any continuation of my hiring could be affected by my public statements,” he said.
“It’s clear to me from the lecture, and the current situation, that the issue of academic freedom is one that is important, at present, in the lives of contemporary academics.”
Cheryl Hall, an assistant government professor, said the faculty was worried that USF would be censured.
“Most faculty I know are not only concerned about the censure but about the precedent of firing someone with tenure on what, despite what is explicitly said, appears to be based on things that were said on a TV show,” Hall said. “People are concerned about what this means for the university and our commitment to, not only academic freedom, but free speech.”
O’Neil said that in disputes involving academic freedom, common sense should be applied.
“In the real world ideal consequences don’t always follow – you do have to be practical and recognize that only those close to the scene are best equipped to make the ultimate judgments,” he said.