Column: Changes needed in university procedures

USF Professor Sami Al-Arian is on paid administrative leave, and the impending legal battle over his fate is on hold until USF President Judy Genshaft makes her final decision (which seems pretty anti-climactic at this point). So before the courts become front and center of our university’s attention, now may be as good a time as any to consider what possible solutions we can look toward to keep a situation like this from happening again.

It’s clear there is much ambiguity about how the speech of a professor should be handled. All viewpoints need to be protected in the interests of academic freedom, but at what point does student safety become the overriding concern? And what kind of restraints can a school place on the speech of its faculty members, especially those with tenure?

It’s clear, according to the current collective bargaining agreement, that saying anything that isn’t the viewpoint of the university as a whole requires a faculty member not to identify himself or herself as an employee of the school. But how does a professor disassociate himself? Does he or she need to say specifically, “these viewpoints are my own and do not represent the views of USF,” or is simply not identifying yourself as a USF teacher in any credentials or during a speech enough to reach that standard? All USF professors must identify the school when publishing their scholarly works. Should that standard apply during speeches or media appearances?

The rules for what is personal belief and what is the opinion of an institution need to be more clearly delineated. The collective bargaining process needs to work here, and administrators and professors need to work together to develop standards acceptable to all parties. But an even more overriding concern is what to do when the university has been negatively affected by the speech of a professor.

Clearly professors who advocate extreme ideas can have a negative effect on a school as an institution, as we can see by the drop in donations and thousands of man-hours Al-Arian’s beliefs have cost the university. So the question becomes: At what point does academic freedom and controversial speech become so expensive as to hurt the freedom of others?

A loss in donations means lost teaching jobs, and the views of other faculty members might not be heard because of the negative attention brought to one. How many staff persons might need to be fired to protect the right of one person to hold and express controversial views? And in the rare case when legitimate threats to safety become an issue, does the university have the right to take any means necessary to protect its students and staff?

Binding arbitration should be looked at as a possible solution to solving these matters, so that the courts don’t become the very public mediator of these disputes. The rules regarding professors as university and state employees as well as scholarly advocates need to be examined again.

All of these questions need to be debated and discussed now so that our school can become a model nationally for finding the balance between academic freedom and institutional health. The right of professors to express controversial views and the right of universities to grow and function with some normalcy aren’t mutually incompatible. But to make this work will require trust and the ability to compromise on both sides. Let’s hope the current contentions between administrators and staff don’t stop needed discussion.

  • Collin Sherwin is a senior majoring in political