Tuesday night the Student Government senate voted to support President Judy Genshaft and the Board of Trustees’ recommendation to terminate tenured professor Sami Al-Arian by a 21-voting majority with 11 abstentions.
Last week, the Faculty Senate voted not to support Genshaft and her decision to fire Al-Arian, a computer science and engineering professor. The faculty union also voted to support Al-Arian in a legal battle for his job.
Genshaft went before the SG senate to detail the events leading up to the recommendation and her decision to terminate Al-Arian.
She first asked the senate members if they attended USF last semester. She then asked if, during that time, they had received phone calls from friends and family asking them what was going on at USF, referring to the attention brought to the university after Al-Arian appeared on The O’Reilly Factor in September. The majority of the senate raised their hands to answer “yes” to the president’s question.
Genshaft raised her hand as well.
“I’m here today because of two tragedies,” she said. “One is the crisis of Sept. 11, and the other happened on Sept. 26 when a professor appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and was questioned about terrorism.”
Genshaft said, throughout the show, the bottom of the screen was blinking “USF – a Hotbed for terrorism,” and the following day, the university received hundreds of e-mails and some death threats to the computer science office building.
“At that point, I thought for his safety and for the safety of others, he should be put on leave with pay,” she said of Al-Arian.
Genshaft also explained that even after the decision to put Al-Arian on paid leave, the university received a dozen or so more death threats and thought it would be better for Al-Arian to remain off campus.
Genshaft said she thought things would calm down, but they have not.
“There was more disruption, and he violated the collective bargaining agreement,” she said.
Genshaft explained that the collective bargaining agreement, as it is stated in the State University Collective Bargaining Agreement, Article 16 as “employee’s activities which fall outside the scope of employment shall constitute misconduct only if such activities adversely affect the legitimate interests of the university or board.”
So when Al-Arian didn’t separate himself from the university when speaking, Genshaft said he violated the agreement.
“I am worried about the students, staff and the visitors on campus, and I will not wait for someone to be harmed or killed to take action,” she said.
Genshaft then said she followed through with the BOT’s recommendation to terminate Al-Arian because she felt the situation was taking up too much of the university’s resources. Al-Arian responded Monday to Genshaft’s intent to fire him, saying he will fight to keep his job.
Genshaft said no one is arguing about what Al-Arian has done on campus when teaching.
“The issue is, we all are responsible for our own behavior. His actions have severe consequences: disruption and the safety on campus,” she said. “It is very important that USF remains safe and not be disrupted any further.”
Genshaft ended her speech with saying she will continue to listen to faculty and outside groups, and she is aware, she said, that some faculty members are worried about the issue of academic freedom as well.
“I believe in two things. One is a quote from John Gardner, ‘Liberty and duty and freedom and responsibility.’ The other is from the late Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Don’t judge a person by their color but by the content of his character,'” she said. “And that is what I am doing.”
SG sen. Melissa Haas said she was glad to see the majority of the senate backing the president and the university.
“I 100 percent back the president and the BOT, and I am glad that the president was able to explain and answer questions that the senate had,” Haas said.
Mike Griffin, student body president and a Board of Trustee member, said though he plays two roles, the student body will come first. And he said he feels the senate respects him for keeping them informed and working together.
“When it comes down to it, the decision that was made was on their (the senate’s) own,” Griffin said. “I give them my input and my rationale, but they made the final decision.”
Grifffin said after talking with various students across the university about Al-Arian, he feels that the majority are in favor of firing him.
“Grant it, it is very hard to tell how all 32,000 students feel, but that is what the senate is there for,” he said. “If they don’t like the outcome, they have the power of voting. And if this issue gets people to come out to vote, that is good for the university.”
Griffin said he has done his homework and he isn’t just waking up one morning and deciding which way to go.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I did that,” he said.
SG senate president Sammy Kalmowicz, who abstained from voting, said he relates the situation with Al-Arian to a metaphor.”If I’m an owner of a movie theater, and I run down the aisle yelling fire, I would be putting lives at danger, and the movie theater would fire me. And no one would object to that,” Kalmowicz said.
Yet, Kalmowicz said that the vote had no reflection on Genshaft’s appearance at the meeting.
“It says a lot about the president’s character and how she wants the students to understand,” he said.
“She may have helped answer some concerns the senators were having, but not their vote.”
Kalmowicz said he was surprised at how much research the senators put into the situation in order to represent the student body.
“The students need to have their voice heard, and the one voice for students is Student Government,” he said
In response to the Faculty Senate and the faculty union’s decisions, Genshaft said she was upset with the result.
“I’m disappointed that they didn’t understand the uniqueness and the specialty of this case,” she said. “I do understand the faculty concerns on academic freedom at USF, and I value them, too. But Professor Al-Arian has disrupted to such an enormous extent, that he violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It’s all about safety and disruption of this university.”
Genshaft gave no indication when she’ll respond to Al-Arian but said she feels she made the right choice.
“To be here two and half years, being paid not to work because of disruption, safety concerns and FBI investigations is not right,” Genshaft said.
“I believe USF is better off if we move forward and terminate Al-Arian.”
- Contact Stefanie Green at email@example.com