Column: Good ideas will triumph over bad ones

As I have watched news accounts of our nation’s military response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, I have been particularly struck by the name of this operation: “Enduring Freedom.”

This is a brilliant name, for it evokes the great challenge facing all of us in this struggle: How do we ensure both our nation’s physical security and the security of the cherished individual rights that give us a national purpose?

That question will test the very soul of the nation before this long fight against terrorism is won.

As we begin this fight, Americans are experiencing great anger, fear, frustration and pain. Grief over the loss of so many lives in the terrorist attacks is compounded by outrage that two of our nation’s great strengths – our open society and our hospitality to immigrants – were turned against us and might be again. Anxiety about war abroad is vastly compounded by fear of potential terrorists-in-waiting in America.

At this critical point, the University of South Florida finds itself at the leading edge of this national dilemma of how to protect both physical security and the security of the rights of individuals.Our task is compounded by universities’ responsibility to provide another kind of security as well – a secure environment for learning.

To have this environment, obviously students, faculty and staff must know they’ll be physically safe when they come to campus to work and study.

But they must also know they will be able to express ideas. Ideas are the lifeblood of universities. We do our work through the constant expression and challenge of ideas. Good ideas drive out the bad. Debate hones good ideas into even better ideas.

Out of this intellectual jostling come discoveries and inventions that help defend our nation, cure and prevent disease, improve schools and community life, and advance our understanding of the human spirit and values.

For us to make our best contribution, universities must be places with a high tolerance for expression that does not violate the rights of others. When we talk about academic freedom, what we’re talking about is the environment for learning.

In the past two weeks, I have been forced to make some tough calls to preserve a safe and sound learning environment at USF after we were engulfed by a firestorm of controversy over Dr. Sami Al-Arian. He is an associate professor of computer science who accepted an invitation to appear on a national television talk show on Sept. 26 and was questioned about allegations of terrorist ties that were made against him in the mid-1990s.

In fact, these allegations were thoroughly investigated by the FBI and others in the 1990s. Dr. Al-Arian was never charged with wrongdoing.

The facts were widely reported by news organizations in 1995 and 1996.

Dr. Al-Arian has an intense personal interest in Palestinian and Islamic issues and more than a decade ago helped found an independent think tank called World Islamic Studies Enterprises, which is now defunct. From 1992-96, USF had an agreement with WISE for that organization to provide speakers and materials and hired some men who were associated with WISE to teach classes.

In 1995, it became clear that this agreement had been a terrible mistake. Several of the men affiliated with WISE were later identified as terrorists or connected to terrorism. And news reports revealed that several years earlier, Dr. Al-Arian had given a speech with such inflammatory phrases as “Death to Israel” – a statement that many people, including myself, find deplorable and reprehensible in any context.

USF severed all connections to WISE. Dr. Al-Arian was placed on leave while the FBI and other law enforcement investigated extensively. Then-USF President Betty Castor retained renowned Tampa attorney William Reece Smith, a former president of the American Bar Association, to conduct an independent inquiry of related issues. There were no findings of wrongdoing by Dr. Al-Arian from any inquiry. In 1998, he resumed teaching. The university has received no new allegations since then.But the world changed on Sept. 11.

When Dr. Al-Arian went onto television on Sept. 26, it was with a talk show host who distorted bits and pieces of the historic record to make it appear that what occurred in the past is happening now. This interview and reactions to it were broadcast repeatedly for more than a week. Dr. Al-Arian has continued to be prominent in other venues.

As a consequence, we have been deluged with hundreds of e-mails, telephone calls and other communications demanding that I fire Dr. Al-Arian. I understand the anger. But the fact is there are no currently known grounds for firing Dr. Al-Arian. The university made that determination in 1998, and neither law enforcement nor any other authority has made new allegations or provided us with additional information about the old ones.Several times a day I find it necessary to explain that I am a university president, not a policeman. I will, with the help of many others, maintain a safe learning environment. In issues of our nation’s security, I will ensure that USF cooperates fully with the FBI and any other law enforcement agency. When it comes to alleged criminal activity and campus security, I must rely on the skills and advice of professional law enforcement. I don’t wear a badge.

We have also received a dozen death threats that law enforcement believes are credible. Death threats are a form of terrorism to be both deplored and taken very seriously.

USF respects Dr. Al-Arian’s right to state his personal views. But we recognize that the reaction to those views has made him a lightning rod for violence. We are operating at a heightened level of security, but we cannot guarantee his safety at this time. And with Dr. Al-Arian on our campus, we could not guarantee the safety of students, faculty and staff who work around him.

To manage this dilemma, we have taken two steps.First, we have placed Dr. Al-Arian on paid leave pending investigation. He is not to come to any USF campus, center or activity until this leave is lifted. It will continue in force until I receive recommendations from law enforcement, the provost and the dean of engineering that it is safe for him to be on campus.

Second, we affirmed Dr. Al-Arian’s right to state his personal views so long as he makes it clear he is speaking for himself and not the university.

Dr. Al-Arian has said he will abide by these conditions.

Has this solution satisfied everyone?

No. In this time of high emotions, that would be too much to expect.

In fact, nobody I’ve talked to is happy about it. But along with the angry people I hear from, I talk to many others who understand why we’re taking this approach and support us, because they realize what is at stake.

They know that the truly great universities are the ones that have the character to remain focused on their core values during political turbulence and social upheaval.

And they know that enduring freedom is built on the rule of law, on due process and on the belief that if people are free to speak, free to think and free to challenge, good ideas will triumph over the bad.

  • Judy Genshaft is president for the University of South Florida.