Column: Is Al-Arian coming back?

It has been over a month since USF Professor Sami Al-Arian was put on paid leave from this university. The reason given at the time was for the safety and well-being of his students, as well as for the professor himself. He remains on paid leave, and there have been no indications given of a timetable for his return. So, my question is … when will he return?

The amount of negative media surrounding the professor was added to Sunday night by Dateline NBC, which aired a report suggesting Dr. Al-Arian is linked to the Islamic Jihad and other terrorist activities. This continues on the idea first nationally exposed by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. This publicity can’t be good for the school, but the way the school is handling the situation might be adding to the problem, as well.

I attended a conference this weekend for opinion writers and heard a member of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board suggest in no uncertain terms that USF was engaging in an infringement of academic freedom. She was surprised to hear me rush to the university’s defense, at first assuming all in attendance would be in agreement with her.

I quickly responded to the attack on my school’s administration, believing that putting Al-Arian on paid leave for a short time, considering the death threats against him and the wave of hysteria incited by O’Reilly’s irresponsible report, was for the safety of the students.

Because the university has a responsibility to protect all persons associated with the school (including the students for whom the institution is often a de facto parent), putting the professor on paid leave for a time while assessing safety measures and determining the safest way to ensure his return was the right and responsible thing to do. But a month later, the question begs to be asked … when will that return be?

If it is the intention of the university to return Dr. Al-Arian to his previous post, there have been no signs or mentioning of his return, when will he be coming back … next week? Next semester? A calendar year from now?

If safety truly was at the heart of his suspension, what measures will be implemented or are being discussed to ensure his return is a safe one? Or, as many of Dr. Al-Arian’s supporters suggest, is this temporary interruption for the professor more than just temporary?

If the university believes that Dr. Al-Arian is associated with terrorist activities, the university needs to say so publicly. If this suspension isn’t because of the death threats received, but only to add to the perception that USF is doing something to combat terrorism and to buy time while waiting for the level of publicity to die down, then that is wrong.

If the university has been asked to keep the professor away by some law enforcement organization, it needs to say so publicly, instead of hiding under the guise of the safety of the students.

Is Dr. Al-Arian a terrorist? A compelling case can be made for both sides. But if USF is in any way being disingenuous about the true reasons for his suspension, then this is a clear violation of basic academic freedom.

Our school needs to indicate when, if ever, Dr. Al-Arian will be returning to his post and what safety measures will be implemented upon his return.