There were protesters and security. In addition, there were police from two different departments.
Inside the meeting room, faculty union president Roy Weatherford, union vice president Mark Klisch, Sami Al-Arian and his attorney Robert McKee sat around an oval table while university officials listened to and questioned the professor’s grievances.
But, even with the security and Al-Arian’s considerable following, arguably the most important person involved in the Al-Arian case was nowhere to be found.
Despite a letter from the union requesting her presence, USF President Judy Genshaft, who placed Al-Arian on paid leave, did not attend the grievance hearing.
Michelle Carlyon, media relations coordinator for USF, said that Genshaft’s decision to not attend was completely normal.
“No previous president has been to a grievance,” Carlyon said.
But Weatherford, Klisch and Al-Arian described Genshaft’s decision as “disappointing.”
On Jan. 21, Klisch sent Genshaft a letter imploring her to attend.
“Given that it was your decision to place Professor Al-Arian on indefinite leave, thereby preventing him from fulfilling his teaching responsibilities and pursuing his areas of research, we are asking you to break precedent in this case and that you represent USF in the Step 1 hearing, or at least that you be present at the Step 1 hearing,” the letter said.
Al-Arian said he thinks Genshaft’s appearance would have made a difference.
“I think she would have appreciated our position,” Al-Arian said.
Klisch said he didn’t receive a response to his letter.
“We wanted every opportunity to try to work this out in a collegial manner so that all parties can be satisfied with the outcome,” Klisch said.
Weatherford said earlier last week that he may not attend the proceeding. He said normally the faculty union president is not present at such proceedings.
But Weatherford chose to be present. He said the university conducted the hearing in a professional manner, and that Al-Arian and the union both had their rights respected around the table.
Weatherford said, however, he was upset with some things that happened outside the meeting room, most importantly that the meeting was moved from the Phyllis P. Marshall Center to the Embassy Suites on Fowler Avenue.
“We have some problems with the change of venue. We have some problems with the security measures that restricted faculty and students from coming over and expressing their opinions,” Weatherford said.
The university decided Thursday to move the meeting to the Embassy Suites to, according to Carlyon, provide more parking and more space for protesters. Security only allowed certain cars into the lot, and non-guests inside the building were questioned.
Weatherford said he ran into an English professor who was angry about the security.
“It reminded us both of the bad old days of the ’60s … where the reaction of the power structure was to shut down and silence as many people as they could,” Weatherford said.
As for the actual grievance proceeding, Weatherford said questions from university officials have given him an idea of its strategy.
“The university’s questions indicate that their strategy is to claim the grievance was not timely because it was not filed within 30 days of the original suspension,” Weatherford said.
Al-Arian was originally ordered off campus Sept. 28, 2001. The grievance was not filed until Jan. 6 of this year. But, Weatherford said, the union will contend that statements from Genshaft nullify the 30-day rule.
“We, however, take the position that, at the original suspension, both the union and Dr. Al-Arian were told that this was not for the purpose of investigating him. It was not for the purpose of disciplining him. It was for the purpose of investigating other people who represented a threat to the security of the university,” Weatherford said. “We had a consultation with President Genshaft where Dr. Klisch explicitly asked her ‘Is it your intention to return Dr. Al-Arian to the classroom?’ and she said ‘Yes.'”
Therefore, Weatherford said, at the time there seemed no reason to file a grievance. He said the suspension wasn’t classified to the union as punitive.
“And yet it has gone on semester after semester. He has been denied access to his office, to his students, to his colleagues,” Weatherford said. “Now (it is) having a seriously detrimental effect on his ability to pursue his career.”
Genshaft has long said that the disruption to USF was because of his now-infamous television appearance. Therefore, because his actions caused the disruption, he was disciplined.
Weatherford said another important move that came out of the meeting was the university’s decision to no longer recognize the collective bargaining agreement.
Weatherford and the union have been fighting for months to save the agreement, which officially expired Jan. 7. By no longer recognizing the agreement in the Al-Arian case, Weatherford said the university will “further diminish his legal rights.”
Genshaft, last week, promised that she would make sure the faculty’s rights were not harmed in any way. She has wondered several times about why Weatherford would continue to be concerned.
For now, the university has 30 days to respond to the Step 1 grievance proceeding. Al-Arian said he does not expect Friday to signal the end. He said he expects the process to go all the way to arbitration.
“However, the university has the opportunity to stop this and make the right decision right now,” Al-Arian said. “The damage has been done, but we can obviously pick up the pieces and move forward.”