On Saturday, a year and a half of speculation will be quashed, as the American Association of University Professors will decide if USF’s actions against former professor Sami Al-Arian warrant censure.
The faculty group, highly regarded in the academic world, was troubled by President Judy Genshaft’s decision to seek the termination of Al-Arian in late 2001. Mainly because the AAUP feared that in doing so, she may have violated his academic freedom and due process.
Al-Arian, who has been the subject of federal investigations for years, was arrested in February on 50 counts of aiding Middle-East terrorism. Prior to his indictment, USF officials had long questioned the professor’s history.
Three members from the AAUP visited USF in March 2002 to meet with administrators and professors. Last month, it released a 14-page report of its findings. The report concluded that USF was at fault for not consulting with a faculty body in seeking Al-Arian’s dismissal and for holding him responsible for death threats he received after denying his alleged connections to terrorists on national TV in September 2001.
USF administrators were given a chance to write a response to the committee’s findings, and it was included in the report which will help the members at the national meeting Saturday decide how they will vote.
In its response to the AAUP’s findings, Genshaft and Provost S. David Stamps deflected most of the AAUP’s allegations. For instance, the collective bargaining agreement at the time did not require a faculty committee meeting to discuss Al-Arian’s termination. In a broader sense, though, USF argued that a case such as this had never been seen before. Therefore, no precedent had been set to which it could adhere. And in the words of Genshaft and Stamps, “Academic freedom and aiding and abetting terrorism are mutually inconsistent.”
USF’s faculty, though, has generally been split on the Al-Arian issue. Administrators have tended to side with Genshaft, while most professors have backed her biggest detractor, faculty union president Roy Weatherford.
The Al-Arian case has raised issues outside academic freedom at USF, as well. Weatherford called into question the administration when it unilaterally created a set of modified faculty rules to temporarily replace the collective bargaining agreement, which expired Jan. 7. The administration claimed it had no motive in rewording the definition of academic freedom in its new set of rules, but Weatherford saw things differently.
“They’re going to screw us,” he told a group of professors and administrators at a Faculty Senate meeting in January.
Now, Weatherford is worried that a censure could severely hurt USF. He says prospective faculty will be less inclined to join a university with the AAUP’s black-mark. And while AAUP officials have characterized the censure as primarily a “faculty issue,” Weatherford said students stand to suffer, too.
“In the long run, censure will hurt our students more than our faculty. It hurts the reputation of the university and therefore hurts the degrees coming from the university,” he said. “It will change the prospect of every student who ever depended on the prestige of the University of South Florida.”
USF Vice Provost Tennyson Wright said Wednesday, however, he doesn’t see a censure hurting USF as badly as it has been speculated.
“I don’t want to characterize it as not being a big deal,” Wright said. “What I’d suggest, though, is that it will not have any major affect on our ability to attract highly qualified faculty and students.”
Genshaft expressed a similar attitude toward censure during an interview in February 2002.
Censure “is just a statement; it doesn’t mean anything more than that. It’s just a statement, period,” she 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.”
This year, the Al-Arian issue has not been a cause of concern for Wright, who is largely responsible for recruiting new faculty to USF. The majority of open positions have been filled, he said.
“I do not see any actions afoot by faculty expressing panic or high degrees of concern or anxiety about such a decision (to censure),” he said.
And the decision to censure is not one that comes down frequently. Typically, the AAUP censures no more than two schools per year. This year, East Texas Baptist University also faces the reprimand.
Genshaft and Stamps requested at the end of their portion of the AAUP’s report that the group table a ruling until Al-Arian’s criminal trial — slotted to begin no earlier than January 2005 — has concluded.
Weatherford said waiting for the trial wouldn’t make sense, as it should hold no bearing on the way USF treated Al-Arian.
“If he was found to be guilty, would it mean the violation of his rights could be excused?” he asked. “That would a moral mistake,” he said.
The only way a university can remove censure is by coming to terms with the aggrieved through an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. In the past, universities have rehired professors, invited them to speak on campus or settled the issue monetarily and subsequently had the censure removed.
If censured Saturday, it would not be the first time for USF. The school was censured in 1964 when then-president John Allen refused to hire a professor who had criticized U.S. foreign policy in a book during the Cold War. The censure was removed in 1968.