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The long road ahead

Did USF President Judy Genshaft violate academic freedom when she sought the termination of tenured professor Sami Al-Arian? The American Association of University Professors thinks she might have, but don’t count on a definitive answer for a long time.

Mary Burgan, general secretary for the AAUP, explained Wednesday the process by which USF could be censured for violating academic freedom. She described censure as a “multi-level process” which, in USF’s case, could take more than a year.

The process begins with the deployment of a 3-member panel that will evaluate whether Genshaft violated the rights of Al-Arian. The panel is scheduled to visit USF March 15-17.

William Van Alstyne, a Duke University law professor and first amendment specialist, Steven Leberstein, a history professor from the City University of New York and Ann Lesch, a political science professor from Villanova University will comprise the committee.

Because of the timing of the meetings – the last weekend of spring break – Burgan said Van Alstyne, who is also chairman of the panel, will revisit USF about a week after the meetings to talk with any students or faculty who were not present during the initial visit.

Setting up a time for the panel to visit proved difficult, Burgan said, because the three members all teach classes at their respective universities.

Burgan said she doesn’t like the fact that the meeting is during spring break, but “it’s just logistics.”

The panel will seek commentary from all parties involved, including Al-Arian himself. Burgan said, because of the professor’s ban from campus, tentative plans have the panel and Al-Arian meeting at the Embassy Suites hotel, just off campus.

“They’re going to ask (of all parties) what the details are to get a full sense of how the situation arose,” Burgan said of the main goal of the panel.

Burgan said though conclusions will most likely be drawn in the panel’s report, the panel will act like a jury and hear all parties objectively. But she said there is no doubt that the rationale for dismissing Al-Arian caught the attention of the AAUP.

“We wouldn’t be sending (the panel) if we didn’t have grave concerns,” she said.

Al-Arian said on Wednesday that he has been contacted by representatives from the AAUP about meeting with him, and he looks forward to getting to tell them his story.

“I will answer all their questions very much open and candid,” said Al-Arian, who also said he plans to meet the panel without his lawyers.

After the panel meets with all the parties, the three AAUP representatives will write a detailed report about their findings. The report is then sent back to all parties involved – such as USF’s administration, the faculty union, the Faculty Senate and Al-Arian – and each party is given an opportunity to respond to the report.Burgan said sometimes after a university has reviewed the report, a settlement is reached, and the pursuit of censure is dropped. In fact, settlements are the ultimate goal for the AAUP, Burgan said, and can come in the form of rehiring the individual, finding the individual a different job or paying the individual a financial remuneration.

“We work very hard to try to reach an agreement that will protect faculty and free speech at the institution,” Burgan said. “We are not interested in condemning places.”

In one case, a professor who was fired (and whose university was subsequently censured by the AAUP) found another job. As a way of settling with that professor, his old university invited him to give a lecture on campus and was later removed from the list, Burgan said.

If a settlement is not reached, the report is then brought to AAUP’s Washington D.C. headquarters. There, a 12-member academic freedom committee votes on whether to approve the report’s publication in the organization’s national magazine, Academe.

But Burgan said the earliest time USF could be censured is June 2003. Each June the AAUP has its national meeting where it votes on similar issues, but Burgan said USF’s case will not be ready for a vote by this June.

“We take a long time,” she said. “It’s kind of like the Supreme Court – people say ‘You’re too slow’ – but we’re fair. We’re defending academic freedom. We have to be careful.”

Burgan said the AAUP issues on average one or two censures per year and removes about the same number of universities from the censured list per year as well.

Fifty-one universities are currently on the AAUP’s censured list, including Brigham Young University, New York University and Johnson and Wales University. The first on the list, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, has been on the list since 1963. The last on the list, Charleston Southern University in South Carolina, was the only institution to be censured in 2001.

Burgan said she expects Genshaft will wait until after the AAUP visits before she makes her decision on Al-Arian.

“She took our advice to wait and deliberate more fully,” she said. “I can’t put words in her mouth about when she will make her decision, but we very much hope she waits.”

Michael Reich, spokesperson for USF, said Genshaft “has a lot of respect” for the AAUP but could not say if she would wait.

“She’s hearing a variety of opinions,” Reich said. “But I know she hasn’t set a timetable.”

Genshaft could not be reached for comment.

One group that has expressed interest in meeting with the AAUP panel is USF’s faculty union. Union president Roy Weatherford said Wednesday that if his group – which represents nearly 2,500 USF faculty – was to meet with the panel, it would put him in an awkward situation, but he said it’s a small price to pay for justice.

“It’s difficult to set out to intentionally sanction your own university,” said Weatherford, who is also a USF professor. “But it seems that the only way to get the administration’s attention is to hit them in the pocketbook, because that’s all they seem to care about.”

The faculty union voted Jan. 11 to support Al-Arian financially and legally should he file a grievance if he is fired. Days later, Al-Arian received statewide support from the United Faculty of Florida, of which USF’s union is a chapter.

Weatherford said since the January meeting he has been preparing staff and legal resources so that if a grievance is filed the union will be ready. Weatherford also said the group is preparing another forum in which a national authority on academic freedom will be brought to campus to discuss the principles of the tenet that has come under enormous scrutiny since Al-Arian’s Sept. 26 appearance on The O’Reilly Factor.

The AAUP has asked that USF’s Faculty Senate organize the logistics of its panel’s visit. In addition, the Senate’s president, Gregory Paveza, said that though it hasn’t officially been requested, senators who both supported and condemned Genshaft’s decision will speak to the panel.

The Senate voted Jan. 9 to not support the president’s decision to seek the termination of Al-Arian.

Paveza said it would be wise for the president to wait until after the panel’s visit to make a decision whether to fire Al-Arian. He said Genshaft – having made previous statements about gathering as much input as possible before deciding Al-Arian’s fate as a professor – is afforded a “reasonable delay” in waiting to hear the results of the AAUP’s visit.

“The president has expressed interest in receiving input from the AAUP, and it would be reasonable for her to wait,” Paveza said.Paveza said the best outcome from the AAUP’s visit would be for the panel to “provide advice to the president about an alternative to dismissal.”

Al-Arian has said in a previous interview that he would welcome an alternative to teaching on campus, such as conducting classes over the Internet or through closed-circuit TV.