Student body president Mike Griffin was having a normal day Friday, interviewing members of Student Government for executive cabinet positions.
And then the phone rang.
“Someone said Fox News was on the phone,” Griffin said. “But I thought it was the local Fox 13 station, so I said I would call them back after the meeting.”
But when the phone rang again, shortly thereafter, and it was made clear that it was the national Fox News channel, Griffin took the call.
That?s when he was asked by a representative of The O?Reilly Factor to be interviewed by Bill O?Reilly at 6 p.m. for the 8 p.m. national broadcast.
Wednesday, O?Reilly interviewed Sami Al-Arian, a USF computer science and engineering professor, accusing him of ties to terrorists and accusing the university of being a hotbed for terrorism.
Griffin said he knew right away, despite the renowned rigorous interviewing tactics of O?Reilly, that it was his job to speak on behalf of the university.
“Whether I wanted to do it or not, it didn?t matter,” Griffin said. “It is the duty of the office.”
O?Reilly?s producers attempted to interview university leaders such as President Judy Genshaft and Provost S. David Stamps, but was unsuccessful.
Michael Reich, spokesman for USF, said Genshaft and Stamps did not appear on the show because of time issues.
“We received a lot of requests for interviews,” Reich said. “It was something we weren?t able to fit in.”
Griffin said the interview was not rehearsed and said that he did not know the questions O?Reilly was going to ask.
During the interview, Griffin told O?Reilly that he supported the university?s decision to place Al-Arian on paid leave.
Griffin said he didn?t get nervous before the interview and therefore did not have trouble fielding the questions.
“(O?Reilly) was cordial and allowed me to get my thoughts across,” Griffin said.
Griffin compared his decision to accept the interview to defending a girlfriend that has just been insulted by a bully.
“I had the opportunity to take on the bully one on one,” he said.
Al-Arian placed on paid leave
Sami Al-Arian, a USF engineering and computer science professor who was accused of terrorist connections on national TV Wednesday night, was placed on paid leave Friday.
President Judy Genshaft called an emergency meeting of the Board of Trustees Friday morning to discuss safety issues on campus after Al-Arian received death threats.
Michael Reich, university spokesman, said the board took a vote of confidence and supported Genshaft?s decision to place Al-Arian on leave.
In an interview after the meeting, Genshaft said that she was sending letters to every undergraduate student?s parents.
“I have not yet spoken to parents, just the students,” Genshaft said. “But we are mailing the letter today. And parents should receive it soon.”
A slew of news cameras followed Genshaft around campus as she stopped to talk to students about how they felt on campus.
“It?s very important for students to know that I care about them,” Genshaft said.
Genshaft stopped inside the computer science and engineering building and made an appearance in a classroom at one point to discuss with students their feelings since the attacks Sept. 11 and also the allegations of terrorist links on campus.
One staff member in the computer science and engineering department said she feels safer after the media coverage of the accusations made against Al-Arian.
“We?ve got the whole world looking, so we don?t have a thing to worry about,” Donna Nowlin, senior word processor said.
Erin Gust, a senior chemical engineering major said the media is blowing the story out of proportion.
“I don?t think it is fair. It?s just one person,” Gust said. “You can?t judge USF as a whole based on one person.”
Genshaft was joined by Louis Martin-Vega, dean for the College of Engineering, Mike Griffin, student body president, and Ralph Wilcox, an American Counsel on Education fellow visiting from the University of Memphis.
Griffin said though USF is a respected university, right now the school is on the receiving end of some bad press.
“USF is a lightning rod,” Griffin said. “We attract the best students, but we also attract so much more.”
Genshaft said that she was prepared for the media onslaught and would make herself available to the press.
Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the leader of the terrorist group the Islamic Jihad, was an adjunct professor at USF for three years in the early nineties.
Genshaft said though he is part of USF?s past, students should feel safe knowing he is not here anymore.
“All we can do is tell the truth,” Genshaft said. “He was here, but that was over eight years ago. He is not here now.”
Genshaft said while trying to be thorough in cooperating with authorities, it is important that students? rights are respected.
“We?ve got that balance of ensuring we don?t infringe on students? rights while working with authorities,” she said.