The fight to maintain academic freedom at USF is nothing new.
And neither is the controversy surrounding Professor Sami Al-Arian and the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a defunct think tank once housed at USF.
But it’s part of what prompted a meeting Thursday with President Judy Genshaft and representatives from the faculty union, United Faculty of Florida, to talk about the importance of ensuring academic freedom at this university.
On Sept. 26, concerns about WISE were resurrected when Al-Arian appeared on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor. Host Bill O’Reilly questioned him about Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who worked with Al-Arian when WISE was in operation and is now the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. O’Reilly bombarded Al-Arian with questions about whether USF had terrorist ties.
“It’s brought up in a different context now,” Genshaft said Thursday. “It has been made sensational by the media. There’s nothing new that has been said.”
Still, some faculty members have said they want to make sure Genshaft’s decision to place Al-Arian on paid leave had nothing to do with what he said during the O’Reilly interview. She said it was for safety reasons.
Genshaft said Al-Arian won’t be allowed back at USF until Provost S. David Stamps, Engineering Dean Louis Vega and the University Police chief have completed an assessment of the campus and say it’s safe for him to return.
“There are two sides of the street,” Genshaft said.
She said Al-Arian’s behavior while on leave will also play into the decision to allow him back into the classroom.
Weatherford said Tuesday that Genshaft had called the union to make sure placing Al-Arian on paid leave was legal. It was.Right now, Genshaft said the police are looking into written communication the university has received about Al-Arian.
Al-Arian received at least one death threat after going on the show, and a university spokesman said Thursday that on Monday, about 100 phone calls and e-mails had been received about Al-Arian.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to ensure safety,” Genshaft said. “It’s been my impression that the students feel safe.”
Professor Roy Weatherford, president for the faculty union, said there is some concern about what the future might bring.”American terrorists cannot interrupt academic freedom at USF,” he said. “We are to speak frankly and straight forwardly about these concerns and listen carefully to what (the administration) has to say.”
Weatherford said the meeting Thursday was to establish dialogue.
“There is no need for formal action,” he said. “There has been no violation of contract. (Thursday’s meeting) was not a grievance hearing or attempt to solve a specific problem.”
The faculty senate will soon release a statement about academic freedom and why it is important to maintain it, he said.