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Censure could cost USF

Its symbol is a golden key. Its distinction is unsurpassed. Its plausibility at USF is likely, barring one thing: a possible censure from the American Association of University Professors should USF President Judy Genshaft hold true to her plans for firing controversial USF professor Sami Al-Arian.

Every three years, the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, the oldest and arguably the most prestigious academic organization in the country, brands universities that excel in arts and sciences with its distinction.

In turn, students who are part of schools with the Phi Beta Kappa distinction and graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences, meeting requirements generated by the area chapter, also become members of the society.

But Nan Coppock-Bland, director for chapter relations at the Massachusetts-based society, said a censure by the AAUP could affect USF’s chances of achieving the distinction – a distinction it has applied for and been denied numerous times.

“There’s nothing written about making (censure) a sure thing to prevent being inducted,” Coppock-Bland said. “But I can tell you from previous experience, it would be in the report.”

In February, the USF Faculty Group for Phi Beta Kappa expressed similar concerns in a letter written to Genshaft.

“The institutional handling of the tenure situation in relation to Professor Al-Arian continues to worry us, because we believe that it may adversely affect our application for a chapter,” the letter, signed by the group chairman, Alvin Wolfe, read.

But Genshaft said in early April that she never thought the AAUP and Phi Beta Kappa could affect each other, calling them two “very different” organizations.

“No, no, no,” she said, when asked if she feared a censure would destroy USF’s hopes for the distinction.

Genshaft said she was surprised the university hadn’t yet received the distinction and said it was important that “we get ourselves in order” for the upcoming application process.

And that is just what is being done, Wolfe said. The USF Faculty Group for Phi Beta Kappa has been holding twice-monthly meetings since September 2000 when Provost S. David Stamps decided to allot the group $3,000 per year to help finance the intensive application process. The application is due November 2003, but Phi Beta Kappa will not vote on whether to give USF the distinction until 2006.

Stamps said it was too early to tell what the effects of a censure would mean for USF.

“First, (Genshaft) hasn’t made a decision yet, and secondly, it’s not yet absolutely certain that if she makes a decision to dismiss the professor that we would be censured,” Stamps said.University spokesman Michael Reich agreed with Stamps, saying with an issue as complicated as Al-Arian’s, it was too early to hypothesize.

“Talking about AAUP censure is just speculation,” Reich said. “If anybody saw the circumstances of the situation, they would see this is clearly an extraordinary case.”

Stamps said in the past, the faculty hasn’t had the proper resources necessary to put together a suitable application. In the application, the faculty must show the strength of its liberal arts programs for undergraduates, Stamps said.

“They need to put together graduation data, department information, educational program information and other demographic statistics to make a case for how strong our undergraduate arts and sciences program is,” Stamps said.

The USF Faculty Group for Phi Beta Kappa, which undertakes the arduous responsibility of completing the application – which can sometimes exceed 100 pages – did not apply in 2000 because the university had undergone so much change, Wolfe said.

“We had a new president, a new provost …,” Wolfe said. “So we decided we had to work toward 2003. We really got organized and started to do things.”

Wolfe said in an interview Monday that the group would devote a section of its application to the current controversy if necessary, outlining its goals and expectations of academic freedom.

But the reality of the situation, Wolfe said, is that by the time Phi Beta Kappa gets around to reviewing the university’s application, the situation could have already been remedied. It will be the handling of the current controversy – specifically how much input the administration heeds from the faculty – that will help USF overcome severe institutional politicization from which it has suffered since the Board of Regents gave way in 2000 to the hand-picked Boards of Trustees at all state universities, Wolfe said.

Because of the movement from the BOR to the BOT, Wolfe said the state of higher education in Florida has become “highly politicized,” as the governor is responsible for choosing 10 of the members on the local boards. The other two members are the university’s president and its student body president.

At least six of USF’s republican-dominated BOT donated to Gov. Jeb Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign, according to the Florida Department of State Web site.

The more influence the governor holds, the less power the faculty have to “govern our own institution,” Wolfe said.

Genshaft was criticized by USF’s Faculty Senate in January – which voted not to support her decision to pursue the termination of Al-Arian – because on Dec. 19 without any faculty input, Genshaft rendered her decision just hours after a recommendation from the BOT.

Even if USF is censured, Coppock-Bland said other colleges that have been censured have “applied over and over” and after having the censure removed, eventually get into the society. She said the delegates who vote to induct colleges into the society are conscious of academic freedom-related issues and scandals of any sort.

Her recommendation was simple.

“It would probably be good to wait until censure was removed (before applying),” she said. “However, (censure) would not be a black mark forever.”

Wolfe said his group would not wait, even if the university is censured.

“It’s something to worry about, but I don’t think that it means we should stop working,” Wolfe said.

Of course, talk of censure is merely speculative at this point, USF administrators have argued. The AAUP in March sent to USF a three-member panel – acting essentially as a moving jury – to conduct talks with the president and administrators, students and Al-Arian in an effort to gather information that it will use to file a preliminary report – and upon further investigation, a full-fledged report – on the state of academic freedom at the university.

Genshaft has said she thinks the AAUP was premature in sending a panel before she has even made a decision. However, when panel chairman William Van Alstyne requested earlier this month that she hold off on any action pending the submittal of his preliminary recommendation, she agreed. She did say, however, she will announce her decision before the beginning of the fall semester.

John Churchill, executive director and secretary for Phi Beta Kappa, presented a speech to the Greater Tampa Bay Area Phi Beta Kappa Association at a meeting April 4.

The day before, April 3, Churchill met with Genshaft on campus, but the two did not discuss the Al-Arian situation.Churchill would not comment on the controversy that has launched USF into the national spotlight, saying that it would be hypothetical to pass judgment on a college that has not yet submitted its application.

During the last cycle in 2000, Coppock-Bland said 41 applications were reviewed, 31 of which were tossed out during the elimination process. In the end, seven more schools were inducted.

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary by five students wishing to create a political debate club. What has ensued during the last 226 years has been the development of the nation’s leading advocate for liberal arts education, according to its Web site.

The association inducts more than 15,000 students from its 262 chapters around the country each year. Florida colleges with the distinction include Florida State University, University of Florida, Stetson University, University of Miami and most recently, Florida International University.

Fifteen U.S. presidents, including former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, hold the distinction. Four serving U.S. Supreme Court justices, Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, author Nathaniel Hawthorne and gridiron star Peyton Manning are also members.

Contact Ryan Meehan