A meeting scheduled to last 30 minutes between students and a representative from the American Association of University Professors lasted nearly an hour and a half Thursday morning.
During the session, five students who support USF President Judy Genshaft?s decision to fire controversial professor Sami Al-Arian, were given a chance to explain to William Van Alstyne ? chairman for a three-member panel that is investigating whether Genshaft violated academic freedom ? why they thought Al-Arian should be given the boot.
While the AAUP?s secretary general said in an interview last month that the group would not have launched an investigation if it didn?t have grave concern, Van Alstyne said that he had not made up his mind.
He acknowledged the students? concerns about the danger of allowing Al-Arian to teach again but asked that each student support their claims with concrete evidence.
Mike Berman, a Student Government senator who arranged the meeting, told Van Alstyne to consider Al-Arian?s negative impact on USF. Berman said the school has lost a considerable amount of money from alumni and corporate sponsors and said the school shouldn?t tolerate Al-Arian ?spreading hatred.?
While Van Alstyne said he has seen evidence to prove USF has lost money since Al-Arian?s ?ill-advised? appearance on The O?Reilly Factor in late September, he said he has not seen any evidence to prove that he has spread hatred. He said spreading hatred would involve directly inciting violent activity.
?There isn?t any evidence he incited anyone to kill,? Van Alstyne said.
As far as losing donations, Van Alstyne said neither teachers nor students should be held accountable to the power of the corporate dollar.
He said, for example, if a student on campus felt passionately about and spoke out against a specific environmental issue, and criticized a corporate donor as being the root of the problem, and that donor in turn threatened to withhold money from the school to preserve an ideal academic environment, the university should stand behind the student.
In this case, in which some allege Al-Arian?s free speech is being impinged, Van Alstyne said all professors have ethical obligations to recognize when they are doing ?gratuitous harm.? Whether Al-Arian has done this, he did not say.
During the meeting, Berman also criticized USF?s faculty union, which voted in January to support Al-Arian legally and financially should he decide to file a grievance if he is fired. Berman said the group, a chapter of the statewide United Faculty of Florida, which has also pledged support for Al-Arian, has abandoned its collective bargaining agreement with the university and is trying to modify the contract to better suit the needs of this case.
Van Alstyne said in this case the union is bound to a contract, and he would not consider it unfaithful for it to modify it or seek a new contract entirely because the current agreement concerning due process and other aspects connected to academic freedom is not up to par with AAUP standards.
?The (due process) procedure is too much like the Queen of Hearts and Alice in Wonderland: Verdict first, trial later,? Van Alstyne said, referring to Genshaft?s decision to pursue his termination without ever meeting with Al-Arian and hence spawning accusations of due process violations from USF?s faculty.
But Genshaft, in an interview last month, said Sami Al-Arian?s due process, according to the collective bargaining agreement, didn?t start until after she wrote him a letter of intent to terminate.
Van Alstyne said he doesn?t want students to view the faculty union as a bad example for seeking to re-evaluate the collective bargaining agreement because ?in every contract there is a vigorous disagreement on what the contract means.?
Other issues brought up were accountability, public safety and one student?s concern that Al-Arian is still being paid even though he is not working.
Freshman Ronda Bostick told Van Alstyne she didn?t think it was right that Al-Arian was still getting a paycheck while waiting for Genshaft?s decision.
In any other situation in which a professor is placed on paid leave for safety reasons, Van Alstyne said that the professor could be expected to continue to do research, participate in some sort of distance learning and advise graduate students, hence justifying a paycheck.
But this case is different, he said, because Al-Arian has expressed interest in all of the aforementioned activities but has been turned down by the administration.
As far as public safety, Van Alstyne said he would be ?dumbfounded? if conditions of anxiety about safety on campus carried on past this semester.
The issue of accountability is two-fold: Al-Arian dissenters say he should be held accountable for his words and the consequences resulting from his now infamous ?death to Israel? speech made more than 10 years ago, and they say he should also be held accountable to the collective bargaining agreement, which the administration said he violated by not disassociating himself from the university when he appeared on The O?Reilly Factor.
But Van Alstyne doesn?t think the latter argument will hold up.
?The university has never required that of the faculty here,? he said, commenting on what he calls an informal but common law ? that no one really assumes professors making public statements outside their realm of study are speaking on behalf of the whole institution.
Van Alstyne said that particular part of the contract is difficult to enforce, ?as long as he doesn?t step out there and say ?I?m Sami Al-Arian, a computer science professor for the University of South Florida, and students and faculty have authorized me to give you the following statement.??
Van Alstyne visited USF with two other AAUP representatives last week, but because the visit fell during the school?s spring break, he came back Thursday to speak with those who were not available initially. He said he had never before been on a panel in which a member was sent back after the initial visit, and idealistically he would have preferred to have the other two members present Thursday, but their teaching schedules would not allow it.
A final report will not be issued until Genshaft has made her decision, and if she chooses to oust Al-Arian, not until after the grievance process is complete, which could take longer than six months. If the panel does determine that Genshaft has violated academic freedom, the AAUP will vote in June 2003 whether to censure USF.
Before the final report is written, Van Alstyne will compose an advisory report for the president. He said that report would take at least one month to complete.