The Faculty Senate voted on Wednesday not to support President Judy Genshaft’s decision to fire controversial, tenured Professor Sami Al-Arian.
Provost David Stamps urged the Faculty Senate to keep in mind the state of the times. He spoke before the senate debated whether Genshaft was justified in moving to terminate Al-Arian during winter break and whether the professor was afforded due process.
“This has to be looked at in the context of Sept. 11,” Stamps said.
Stamps said due to a number of factors, including hundreds of daily e-mails and phone calls, that it was “impossible for the university to provide an acceptable level of safety for faculty and students” if Al-Arian was to remain teaching at USF.
Following Stamps’ address, Al-Arian spoke via telephone, his voice dispersed by means of speakers that hung from the ceiling of the jam-packed Westside Conference Center at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Al-Arian made clear that he was banned from campus and, therefore, could not attend the meeting.
“I’m told that I cannot be on campus because some people, over 100 days ago, decided to threaten me and disrupt the university after my appearance on a Fox News program,” he said.
Al-Arian said events of the past few months have taken a tremendous toll on his family, and he reflected on his decision to appear on The O’Reilly Factor Sept. 26, saying that his concern for the Muslim community in light of the attacks on Sept. 11, in the end, outweighed his apprehensions about going on the show.
“Frankly, I was reluctant to appear, and I should have followed my mother’s advice, and that is to always follow my instincts,” Al-Arian said.
One of Genshaft’s major reasons for moving to terminate Al-Arian was because she said he failed to make clear that when he spoke, he was not representing the university.
“At USF, we respect the right of faculty to express their personal views on controversial subjects, with the understanding that it must be clear they are speaking for themselves and not for the university,” Genshaft said in a Dec. 19 statement.
But it is the environment those comments created, not the comments themselves, Genshaft said, that caused her to fire the tenured professor who would have been on the brink of entering his 16th year at USF.
“I’m not talking about his comments,” Genshaft said after the meeting. “It’s the disruption he has caused this university.”
Al-Arian, who has been an outspoken activist of the Palestinian cause, came under enormous scrutiny when, in 1995, a former USF adjunct professor and cohort of Al-Arian turned up in Syria as leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. An FBI investigation didn’t turn up enough evidence to charge Al-Arian with a crime, and after spending time in 1998 on paid leave, he was returned to USF to teach.
But in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, those allegations have been revisited by the media, which Al-Arian accused in the meeting of conducting an “orchestrated campaign” against him and the university.
Gregory Paveza, president for the Faculty Senate, addressed the senators before allowing them to debate the integrity of Genshaft’s decision.
Paveza said his spirit was troubled because he found himself, for the first time since taking office, disagreeing with the actions of the Board of Trustees, the provost and the president. He said the reasons Genshaft outlined for the dismissal of Al-Arian set a vague precedent, and it will be impossible for faculty members to know when they are crossing the line between acceptable and impeachable.
“What happens the next time a faculty member engages in controversial behavior that offends the governor, alumni or board?” Paveza asked. “Indeed, what happens if some of those parties find what I am saying today offensive or causes disruption? Would the board succumb to the pressure to have me dismissed, and would I be dismissed?”
Paveza said Al-Arian’s firing also sends a message to students: Be careful what you say – you could be expelled.
“It is not a tremendous leap in logic to believe that if the administration can fire a tenured faculty member, how much more easily can it get rid of a mere student?” Paveza asked.
But not all were opposed to Genshaft’s decision, as Paveza himself concluded well before the vote that he felt, judging from e-mails he had received, that the faculty was split in its feelings.One senator, Sara Mandell, was particularly adamant, speaking three times during the formal debate. Mandell described the situation the senators faced as being caught between a rock and a hard place. She said there are bonds beyond which protection should not be extended.
Mandell compared USF to a city, saying she supported Genshaft’s decision because, ultimately, the president is looking out for the well-being of that city.
“If we are not safe to work, and our students are not safe to go to class, we can not exist as a university,” Mandell saidBut Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, who attended the meeting, said Mandell’s comparison of USF to a city doesn’t fly.
“You don’t prevent people from walking down the street of a city just because they could get killed,” she said.
Another senator, who has worked for the U.S. Army for 17 years and spoke out on behalf of Genshaft’s decision, drew laughs from the crowd when, in jest, he made clear that what he was about to say didn’t represent the U.S. military.
Joseph Kools said he had an advantage when considering how he would decide on the matter, as he is not paid by the university, and therefore considers himself an observer.
“The fact is, hate is not protected in academic freedom,” Kools said. “If we condone this, if we condone ‘Death to Israel,’ then what’s next?”
A senator who attended the Dec. 19 emergency BOT meeting said that while professors should consider the consequences of their remarks, the process used by the BOT and Genshaft to fire Al-Arian was flawed.
“(The process) was very undemocratic,” Susan Greenbaum said. “It resulted in a very bad decision. This is the kind of governance that has been in place since the BOT was established.”
But Kools disagreed, saying he viewed Genshaft’s decision differently.
“It takes gumption to seek counsel, seek the law, research and make a decision,” he said. “And that’s what’s been done in this case.”
Nancy Jane Tyson, past president for the Faculty Senate, called the allegations made against Al-Arian vague. She presented to the audience what she said was information the administration had withheld from the public.
It came in the form of a police report that details the death threat called into the Computer Sciences and Engineering building Sept. 27, the day after Al-Arian had appeared on The O’Reilly Factor; a threat Tyson characterized as being described by the administration in the “most melodramatic tones.”
According to the report, a student receptionist answered the threatening call. The caller on the other line, the report said, told the student he “was going to come and kill (Al-Arian).”
After the caller hung up, the report said the receptionist left for class. Another receptionist who replaced the student received a call from the same individual 25 minutes later, the report said.
According to the report, the individual told the receptionist that he had seen Al-Arian on TV the previous night and became angry and could not control himself. The report said he went on to say that he did not mean to frighten anyone and asked the receptionist to relay his apologies to the receptionist who took the call initially.
But Michael Reich, spokesman for USF, said Genshaft had not seen the police report and, therefore, could not have withheld the information, as Tyson had alleged.
Reich said the University Police had received more than 150 e-mails and phone calls that were considered threatening. Upon investigation, 12 were considered viable, and today, Reich said, three of those cases are still pending.
In an interview after the meeting, Al-Arian’s lawyer, Robert McKee, said though the Senate’s vote was a small victory for Al-Arian and academic freedom, he still believes Al-Arian will be fired. And he said that could “gut the meaning of tenure.”
When Al-Arian files his response to the letter of intent to terminate, and he is fired, like McKee anticipates, a grievance will then be filed. Another possibility, McKee said, would be to file a lawsuit against the university and try to prove that the reason Al-Arian was fired was a direct result of the comments he made.
After the resolution to support Genshaft’s decision failed, a resolution was passed that calls upon the Senate to create a committee of faculty discipline. The committee, in cases such as that of Al-Arian, would hear and respond to any allegations – especially against tenured professors – made by the administration.
Other Senate members further suggested that the BOT adopt the American Association of University Professors guidelines for academic freedom, hence strengthening the protocol.
In addition to Wednesday’s decision by the Faculty Senate, USF’s faculty union will determine at a meeting today if it will file a grievance on behalf of Al-Arian.
Before both resolutions were reached, Sen. Sherman Dorn presented a multimedia presentation on the history of academic freedom violations from the turn of the century to the 1970s.
At the end of his presentation, Dorn outlined what he considered to be breaches of academic freedom. Those violations, he said, included dismissing a professor due to his or her beliefs, dismissals resulting from outside pressures, action that distorted scholarship, intimidation of faculty, either intended or perceived, and the movement of institutional control away from faculty governance.
Dorn then warned the senators.
“There are intangible, long-term harms for firing faculty and violating academic freedom,” he said.
- Contact Ryan Meehan at email@example.com