It has been more than seven months since USF professor Sami Al-Arian was vaulted into the national spotlight.
Al-Arian appeared on The O’Reilly Factor television program on Sept. 26, 2001, at which time host Bill O’Reilly accused him of terrorist activities.
That single event started a firestorm of controversy leading up to a Dec. 19 emergency meeting of the USF Board of Trustees, during which the intent for his dismissal was announced. USF President Judy Genshaft placed Al-Arian on paid leave but has yet to actually fire the professor.
Since that time, the American Association of University Professors, based in Washington, D.C., has investigated the university about the handling of the case. The AAUP could vote to censure USF if violations of Al-Arian’s academic freedom, due process and other rights are discovered.
While the AAUP’s investigation continues, the group released a stern interim statement on the case Monday. The statement said, among other things, that a full report could be produced by the investigating committee at any time. In addition, the statement continues to call for Al-Arian to be returned to work by the fall semester.
“The investigating committee believes that Professor Al-Arian’s statements fell well within the ambit of academic freedom,” the statement said. “Other currently pending charges against Professor Al-Arian have been characterized by the investigating committee as too insubstantial to warrant serious consideration as adequate cause for dismissal.”
AAUP Assistant General Secretary Jordan Kurland said there has been no official action taken in the Al-Arian case. He said the statement is urging Genshaft toward what the AAUP believes is a proper decision.
“I guess this interim statement could be read as calling upon Genshaft, the call coming from the national committee now, to proceed to end this suspension,” Kurland said. “If the suspension is indeed because of the stated charges against him, he should be reinstated to his responsibilities.”
Kurland said the present statement echoes findings given to Genshaft in April. He said the AAUP’s firm stance has not changed.
“If she chooses to fire him, on the basis of the stated charges, we’ve already put her and the administration on notice, they will be severely faulted by the AAUP,” he said.
Kurland said, however, the stance of the AAUP could change at any time. He said if a censure were recommended, it would not take effect for a year. If new evidence came to light during the interim, Kurland said, the AAUP could accept a firing.
“I’m trying to say a person in Al-Arian’s position does not have immunity,” Kurland said. “But on the basis of the grounds for intending to dismiss him, as stated, if that indeed remains his cause and he is dismissed on that basis, people that know what the AAUP is all about could only conclude (censure an option).”
Michael Reich, director for media relations at USF and spokesman for Genshaft, said while there was little new information in the AAUP’s statement, he did disagree on some parts.
“They characterize it in terms of academic freedom,” Reich said. “It’s not about academic freedom at all.”
Reich said Genshaft and the administration has long held that Al-Arian, a computer engineering professor, was speaking outside of the classroom and therefore not covered by academic freedom. In addition, Reich said the AAUP has misunderstood the FBI’s investigation into Al-Arian’s alleged terrorist connections.
“They refer to the FBI investigation as kind of an open-and-closed case, with no finding of wrongdoing,” Reich said. “The justice department still has an open investigation.”
Reich said Genshaft’s decision will come before the fall semester, probably some time during August. He said the timing will not be influenced by the completion of the summer semester, when few students will remain on campus.
“She’ll make a decision when she’s ready,” Reich said.
Al-Arian, who was at the Coleman Federal Prison Wednesday where his brother-in-law and former USF adjunct professor Mazen Al-Najjar is being held, said he believes the AAUP supported the facts that he has stated for some time.
“I’m very grateful for the AAUP and for their strong support,” Al-Arian said. “Again, it’s a testimony to the system. We have a system based on objective institutions.”
Al-Arian said he believes the firm statement from the AAUP has caused the delay in Genshaft’s decision. He said he thinks Genshaft is having second thoughts.
“I believe she has realized that the decision back in December was a mistake,” Al-Arian said. “I encourage her to do the right thing and not continue with this unjust situation.”