The university was torn Thursday between administrators reaffirming the safety of USF, students questioning that safety and a professor deflecting accusations of terrorist links.
President Judy Genshaft said comments made by Sami Al-Arian on The O?Reilly Factor Wednesday night caught her off guard.
“I was surprised that he was on national television at all and that he made the statements he chose to make,” Genshaft said.
O?Reilly implied that USF was harboring people involved in terrorist activity and more specifically that Al-Arian had connections to terrorist Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a former adjunct professor at USF. Shallah left the university in 1995, and six months after his departure became the leader of the Islamic Jihad, a militant Arab terrorist group now based out of Syria. The group has claimed responsibilty for terrorist attacks in the Middle East.
Genshaft, who was observing Yom Kippur and did not plan on coming to the university Thursday, said that the severity of this accusation warranted her changing her plans.
“If I see the campus getting nervous, I have to do something about it,” Genshaft said. “And I want them to know whether I?m supposed to be here or not, it doesn?t matter, I need to be here.”
She said her main purpose Thursday was to convey the message that USF is a safe place to be.
“My first concern, my primary concern, is always the safety of the campus for our students, staff and faculty,” she said.
Not everybody feels safe though, one student said.
“Nobody really feels safe right now, because nobody really knows what?s going to happen next,” junior Meredith Murphy said.
Murphy said the allegations of terrorist links on campus are making her paranoid in class.
“When I go to my math class, I want to know if there is some wacko down the hall in the engineering building making phone calls about planting bombs,” she said.
Murphy said her parents forced her to come home following the attacks more than two weeks ago, and as a result, she missed a week of school. She said, though things have simmered down for the time being, it is going to take awhile for her to feel safe again.
“It?s scary when something like this happens in your own backyard,” Murphy said. “I?m always on edge about it, and I?m not going to feel safe for a while.”
Genshaft walked through the Phyllis P. Marshall Center Thursday afternoon to gauge student reaction and try to comfort those like Murphy who don?t feel safe.
After meeting with Mike Griffin, student body president, Sammy Kalmowicz, Student Government senate president and Laura Woodruff, SG senate vice president, Genshaft approached three students eating lunch in the Tampa Room to gain their perspective.
After introducing herself, Genshaft asked the students if they felt safe on campus.
“Not after reading that in the paper today,” freshman Kerri Granstrom said, referring to the article about the interview published in Thursday?s Oracle. “I was surprised that someone this close to home could be related to that.”
Genshaft told the students that she would be working with University Police to take all the precautions necessary to ensure safety on campus. Genshaft also said she would be writing a letter to be mailed home to parents.
Genshaft issued an official statement Thursday that said, “Dr. Al-Arian does not speak for the university on these issues, and it is incorrect to suggest that his views represent USF in any fashion. His views are his own.”
Al-Arian said USF was wrong in issuing the statement, because he said the interview was a setup, and his name was cleared of any wrongdoing following a court ruling in 1998.
“It?s disingenuous on the part of the university to make such comments about me,” Al-Arian said. “I regret what the university had to say.”
Al-Arian said O?Reilly?s comments were wrong too, and that guilt-by-association does not justify terrorist accusations.
“(O?Reilly said) you know A, you know B, and you know C. They are all bad guys, so you must be a bad guy,” Al-Arian said.
Al-Arian said he received death threats Thursday both by phone and email.
UP released a statement Thursday that gave instructions on using the Malicious Call Trace system. Cpl. Andrew Caffarelli said the system is designed so students who receive anonymous, threatening phone calls can alert the police who then can trace the call.
Caffarelli said UP was told to do “special checks in higher profiled areas.”
“We are frequenting certain areas more often than we normally would in light of terrorist attacks and the interview,” he said.
He said there were no new developments today in relation to the interview.
“Genshaft?s statement also said that she is establishing a University Security and Safety Task Force that will review “policies and practices” of students, faculty and staff. The committee, which is to be headed by Max Bromley, a criminal justice professor, will issue its first report by Dec. 1.
Genshaft called an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees for 8 a.m. today to discuss campus safety since the Sept. 11 attack and The O?Reilly Factor interview Wednesday night.
Contact Ryan Meehan at email@example.com