Officials at universities around the state view the controversy involving Sami Al-Arian and USF President Judy Genshaft’s decision to fire him as nothing less than complex. Genshaft’s decision has caused many to think about the difficulty of the job as president and the issue of academic freedom.
Carlos Alfonso, Board of Trustees member for the University of Florida, said in any university, there will always be controversial issues. He said Genshaft was put into a tough position to make a choice that would affect the entire university, and USF should be careful not to lose her.
“As an outsider looking in, I see that USF’s president is outstanding,” Alfonso said. “I’m afraid that with such a real treasure, that if USF were to lose her, it would be very difficult to find a replacement.”
Alfonso said he tries to keep up with USF issues since he lives in Tampa.
When administrators get into a situation, such as the one with Al-Arian, they have to do what is in the best interest for the university, he said.
“As a BOT member, I carry my job out as if I were a student. It is all about the future of the students and the university,” he said. “You have to forget about a person taking a political stance and do what is right for the students.”
Alfonso said he supports Genshaft’s and the USF BOT’s decision to terminate Al-Arian because it was in the best interest for USF.
Joe Glover, associate provost for UF, said to his knowledge, UF has not adopted a position on Al-Arian’s case nor has UF fired anyone for any reason that would be deemed controversial.
“I am not aware of any discussion on campus or within the (UF) BOT,” Glover said.
In 1999, Florida State University faced a similar decision-making process when a psychology professor, Glayde Whitney, was branded a racist for claiming that blacks were generally intellectually inferior to whites.
He found himself in the center of controversy when he wrote the forward to a book written by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. In it, Whitney said he believed Duke relied on “good science” in that blacks should attend separate schools and perhaps live in separate communities.
Because Whitney wrote in Duke’s book, My Awakening, there were several discussions regarding his termination. The university took no formal action against Whitney, who, like Al-Arian, had tenure.
Delmar Johnson, the former student body president for FSU, said he has heard conversations among administrators and students about the issues at USF, but there has been nothing formal written or stated from FSU officials.
“The administration has it tough,” Johnson said.
“But the more I learned and read about the situation, I feel that the BOT made the right decision.”
Browning Brooks, director for media relations at FSU, said the president of the university, Sandy D’Alemberte, did not agree with the action of Whitney but decided to stand up for the issue of academic freedom.
Brooks also said she could not speak on behalf of D’Alemberte and his views of the situation with Al-Arian but said the situation with Whitney and the situation with Al-Arian are different because of allegations of possible links to terrorism surrounding Al-Arian.
Johnson said that because the FSU administration did not fire Whitney, many professors and students were outraged. There were the same debates within the university concerning free speech and academic freedom, but it was a different point in time when the situation occurred, Johnson said.
“He didn’t have any links to terrorists,” Johnson said. “But after Sept. 11, perceptions have changed.”
On Dec. 19, Genshaft sent a letter of intent to terminate to Al-Arian. Since then, USF’s Student Government has voted to support Genshaft, while USF’s Faculty Senate voted to not support her decision. The faculty union supports Al-Arian and academic freedom, and the Graduate and Professional Student Organization voted to not support Genshaft.
Gary Whitehouse, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Central Florida, said the topic of the USF professor is not a “hot one” at his campus. Whitehouse said it is hard for him to judge the situation because the issue is not a recurring.
“There is really not enough details to form an opinion here (at UCF),” Whitehouse said. “But we do understand the difficulty of the situation that the president is facing.”
Al-Arian is still on paid leave pending Genshafts decision. The American Association of University Professors has requested that she wait until it files a preliminary report on its findings before she decides whether to fire him.
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