Citing USF President Judy Genshaft’s handling of the Sami Al-Arian saga, John Esposito, founding director of the center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University and world authority on Islam, canceled an Oct. 17 visit to USF that was part of the University Lecture Series.
Esposito, who chose to respond via e-mail, said the administration’s handling of the Al-Arian case was the sole reason for his cancellation.
“I canceled because of professor Sami Al-Arian’s firing and the clear violation of his academic freedom as noted by the (American Association of University Professors) and its threat to censure USF,” Esposito said.
Esposito further explained his reasons in a Sept. 6 e-mail intended for Student Activities.
“The unfortunate decision of your president makes it impossible for me to participate at a function at a university that so clearly disregards/violates the academic freedom of one of its professors,” Esposito said. “For the sake of USF, its faculty and students, I hope that situation will change in the immediate future.”
Esposito is not unfamiliar with USF. About a decade ago, he was actively recruited by the university’s religious studies department. Esposito also participated in a series of conferences held by former USF professor Jacob Neusner.
Neusner, who now works at Bard College in New York, said he did not know of Esposito’s cancellation. He did, however, characterize Esposito as a scholar and Islam expert.
“He’s certainly not a propagandist,” Neusner said.
Darrell Fasching, a professor in USF’s religious studies department, co-authored a book with Esposito and said he considers him a friend. Fasching echoed Neusner’s comments, calling Esposito one of the top two or three scholars of Islam in the world.
Fasching said he did not know of Esposito’s cancellation but was not shocked.
“I wouldn’t say I expected it,” Fasching said. “(But since he canceled), I’m not sure I’m surprised either.”
Fasching said the importance of Esposito’s cancellation will be read differently by different people. He said it does, however, bring up some important questions about the Al-Arian case and academic freedom.
“The AAUP is serious about academic freedom,” Fasching said. “(Cancellations) may happen more than once, both in terms of visiting scholars and in terms of hiring.”
Michelle Carlyon, media relations coordinator for USF, said no one in Genshaft’s office was available for comment Tuesday evening.
But, judging from the uncertainty at Student Activities offices, it is unclear whether the president or her staff would even have knowledge of the cancellation.
Laurie Woodward, associate director for student affairs, said she was unaware of the cancellation until late Tuesday afternoon. She said the confusion resulted from the fact that Esposito e-mailed his Sept. 6 cancellation notice to Jill Reagan, who originally secured his appearance. Woodward said Reagan has since graduated and left her job as program coordinator and that the e-mail never reached Student Activities.
Woodward said she would confirm the cancellation with Esposito, who hasn’t contacted Student Activities by phone. She said the annual ULS brochure was sent to press Tuesday and would have to be pulled back.
Woodward said she was unsure if or how much money will be lost from the cancellation.
But, aside from the headaches for Student Activities, Woodward said she is sorry Esposito will not be coming.
“It seems kind of unfortunate,” Woodward said. “He could have educated our 39,000 students about (religious) tolerance.”
Al-Arian said, while he was pleased to receive support from his fellow professors, he too feels it is unfortunate that an expert on Islam will no longer be visiting USF.
“His voice is pretty much needed on the campus and the community at large,” Al-Arian said. “I have mixed feelings.”
Al-Arian said he is pushing for private groups to provide sponsorship and bring Esposito to speak to the community outside of USF.
Al-Arian also echoed Fasching’s comments. He said the fact that such a well respected scholar canceled a speaking engagement is an important moment for his case.
“It’s incredible, obviously,” Al-Arian said. “I guess it’s to be expected because of the attitude of the university towards academic freedom.”