Faculty members concerned about academic freedom

Professor Sami Al-Arian said Tuesday that no one from the university has been in contact with him to say when he’ll be allowed back into the classroom.

Al-Arian was placed on paid leave more than a week ago after an appearance on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor Sept. 26.

And USF faculty leaders are meeting today and Thursday to make sure the reason President Judy Genshaft placed Al-Arian on leave had nothing to do with what he said.

“The faculty union feels (academic freedom) is threatened in the case of Sami Al-Arian,” said Professor Nancy Jane Tyson, past president for the Faculty Senate.

Tyson said what has faculty members worried about freedom is something Genshaft said during a Sept. 28 news conference about Al-Arian.

Genshaft was quoted in The Tampa Tribune as saying of Al-Arian, “Should he violate this requirement, we shall take the strongest possible action. This is not about freedom of speech. This is not about academic freedom. This is about the safety of our campus.”

Al-Arian said he thought he was going on the show to talk about the World and Islam Studies Enterprise – a defunct think tank that was once housed at the university. Instead, host Bill O’Reilly ripped into Al-Arian about Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who once worked with WISE, and in a short time after leaving USF, emerged as leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group.

The show prompted telephone calls and e-mails from parents and students concerned about possible terrorist activities at USF.Genshaft said at the news conference Sept. 28 that Al-Arian’s comments were his personal views.

“I want to make it clear that Dr. Al-Arian does not speak for the university on these issues, and it is incorrect to suggest his views represent USF in any fashion,” she said. “His views are his own.”The administration said Al-Arian was removed from the classroom because of safety issues – he received at least one death threat after the O’Reilly interview.

Al-Arian said Tuesday that he wasn’t consulted about whether he should be placed on paid leave, but he understood the decision.

He wouldn’t comment further on the investigation until he receives more information from the university.

He said in a guest column published in Monday’s Oracle that the producer for The O’Reilly Factor said Al-Arian was to speak about WISE’s relationship with USF and the controversy surrounding it.

“I also told her that although I was on the faculty of USF, I’d like to be introduced as chairman of the coalition that was established to defend civil rights and political freedom,” he wrote.Instead, the title given to Al-Arian by O’Reilly was USF professor.

“He was rather unjustly accused of representing the university when it wasn’t really his intent to do that,” Tyson said. “So I thought those charges were a little harsh of the administration against him.”

Tyson said that at a university as complex as USF, she doesn’t expect for one person to represent the views of everyone. And she wants the administration to be “a little more open with the media” when it comes to discussing Al-Arian.

“I’m not sure I want them to go to the lengths of going to the O’Reilly show,” Tyson said.

Sara Mandell, a religious studies professor, said anytime a faculty member offers his opinion, he is speaking for himself. She added that while the Faculty Senate speaks on academic issues, it does not speak for the faculty on personal or political issues.

“I’m personally very concerned by the statements that were made on O’Reilly,” Mandell said. “I really don’t know how (Genshaft) is doing … I’m not hedging – I haven’t come to a decision. Where do we draw a line with civil liberties? It’s different in a time of peace.”

Mandell said when former president Betty Castor dealt with the FBI’s investigation into USF, WISE and Al-Arian, there had not been an attack on U.S. soil.

“I don’t know what you do in such a circumstance … I feel sorry for President Genshaft,” Mandell said.

Clare Hite, an elementary education professor for the Lakeland campus, said she thinks Genshaft has done a good job handling the situation.

And as far as wanting more answers, “We’re so removed from a lot of what’s going on (on the Tampa campus), that my students don’t even bring it up at all,” Hite said.

Liz Larkin, a professor at the Sarasota campus, agreed with Hite that her students don’t care about the details of Al-Arian’s case.

“They aren’t talking about President Genshaft,” Larkin said.But answers from Genshaft are very much a priority for Professor Roy Weatherford, president for USF’s chapter of the faculty union, United Faculty of Florida.

He said the faculty union is meeting Thursday with Genshaft to talk about how Al-Arian’s case affects the future of academic freedom.

“No law and no constitutional provision protects academic freedom,” Weatherford said. “But the only place where it’s written down and has legal standing, is in the contract.”

Weatherford said Genshaft called him before placing Al-Arian on leave to make sure her doing so was legal. He said it was.Weatherford said it is clear that the president can speak on behalf of the university.

“As far as I know, Professor Al-Arian didn’t make any affirmative efforts to speak for the university or perceive that he was speaking for the university,” he said.

According to the American Association of University Professors’ statement on principles on academic freedom, “When they (professors) speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

One of the things Weatherford will discuss with Genshaft Thursday is whether professors must give disclaimers before speaking at engagements not sponsored by USF, saying they do not represent the university.

“We’ll put down in writing what this amounts to,” Weatherford said.

He said the union will also speak to Genshaft about the technicality of Al-Arian’s leave. Weatherford said it’s not meant to be a disciplinary action.

“We want to make sure that distinction is maintained,” he said.Weatherford said the faculty union supports the university. And he said the union and university will be responsible in affirming and guaranteeing academic freedom at USF.

“The university’s reputation was made by our activities … and its reputation is our reputation,” Weatherford said. “We intend to defend its reputation from the left and the right.”

While academic freedom is essential, it’s also important to keep instructors in the classroom, said Harry E. Vanden, a government and international affairs professor.

“We must not let the terrorists disrupt our jobs,” he said. “By terrorists, I also mean those who would threaten faculty members and threaten to place bombs in different offices.”

Professor Jack Moore said Genshaft should have asked the faculty what they thought about placing Al-Arian on paid leave. He sent a letter to the president telling her he was concerned about the way she handled things.

“Contacting Roy Weatherford hardly constitutes meaningful consultation,” Moore said. “She took special pains to call the (Board of Trustees), but the faculty was not brought into her decision making.”

He wants the Faculty Senate executive members to address some of these concerns when they meet today.

“I felt that (Al-Arian) was certainly expressing his constitutional rights to free speech, and he should be protected for that,” Moore said. “The charge was made that this (putting Al-Arian on paid leave) was done for his safety.”

But Moore, who has been at USF since 1962, said placing professors on leave was once a tactic to hinder free speech.”In the public view, the university seems to support the stifling of his speech, though in fact, it hasn’t, technically speaking,” Moore said.

He said Al-Arian has been censured for his right to free speech. And while it isn’t uncommon that professors say things that aren’t popular, Moore said, “This institution has a duty to make a way safe for unpopular speech.”

  • Contact Kevin Grahamat editor@usforacle.com