History in the making

If it is determined that President Judy Genshaft and USF violated academic freedom by firing professor Sami Al-Arian, it won’t be the first time the university violated academic freedom, said Ellen Schrecker, a history professor for Yeshiva University in New York.

Schrecker came to USF Friday to speak to faculty and students about that history.

Fraser Ottanelli, a USF history professor, asked Schrecker to speak about academic freedom at USF after Genshaft announced her decision to fire Al-Arian on Dec. 19. Schrecker said she was not going to comment on the situation but give a history lesson about academic freedom and McCarthyism based on her knowledge in those areas.

Schrecker first explained that while freedom of speech and academic freedom are similar, they are not the same. Schrecker said academic freedom has a special protection because it gives professors the right to say whatever they want as long as it pertains to the subject and it is clear the professor is speaking as an individual.

“This can be confused when it’s outside the university,” Schrecker said. “Administrators are usually aware (professors) are speaking of their expertise.”

Schrecker said it is not always necessary for the speaker to say they are speaking as an individual, because administrators are the only people who speak for an institution.

“It can be confused outside a university,” Schrecker said.Schrecker said academic freedom was first threatened during times of war when professors were warned not to do or say anything that was against for the war effort. And professors from the opposing country during war were asked not to talk at all, she said.

During the Cold War, Schrecker said, people had to answer whether they were a member of the Communist Party, and if so, they had to give the names of other members, as well. Schrecker said this was a time when McCarthyism dominated and the government wanted the Communist Party to have a low profile.

Schrecker said that in 1962, former USF president John Allen refused to hire a history professor accused of communism because he criticized American capitalism during World War II. Schrecker said USF was put in the American Association of University Professors bulletin for violating the professor’s academic freedom.

“We wonder if USF will again return to that list,” Schrecker said. Hiba Hechiche, a USF professor for government and international affairs, was at USF during the time Allen did not hire the history professor. Back then, Hechiche said, the faculty took action to support the professor, just as the current faculty supports Al-Arian’s fight today for academic freedom.

Schrecker said the AAUP, which ensures faculty rights are protected, investigates a university when they receive a professor’s complaint for violation of academic freedom. The AAUP creates a report from faculty, students and staff about what happened at the university.

Schrecker said if it is decided that the university did violate academic freedom, the university will be published in Academe, a magazine that lists institutions that have violated rights or procedures.

“It says the institution is not behaving like a university,” Schrecker said. “It is taken seriously, and it doesn’t make a school look good.”

Roy Weatherford, president for USF’s faculty union, said it is a serious possibility that USF will be listed in Academe for violating Al-Arian’s academic freedom.

“AAUP already sent a letter to President Genshaft expressing the organization’s concern,” Weatherford said.

Schrecker said faculty members often express their opinions and try to save a professor’s position when they believe academic freedom has been violated.

“You have to speak out and do everything the people here seem to be doing,” Schrecker said.

On Wednesday, the Faculty Senate voted to not support Genshaft’s firing of Al-Arian, and on Thursday, the faculty union voted to support Al-Arian if he takes legal action against the university.

Weatherford said the faculty union has taken it’s first step in saving Al-Arian’s position.

“We are doing this politically and through the established grievance mechanism,” Weatherford said.

Junior John Maldenado said Friday’s lecture was a chance for him to get a fresh perspective from a professional.

Maldenado said the Al-Arian case is a win-lose situation because of security and academic needs.

“We emphasize security, but we forget what the university stands for: academic well-being also,” Maldenado said.

  • Contact Grace Agostinat oraclegrace@yahoo.com