For the past 10 months, USF students and faculty have watched the ever-changing developments in the case of professor Sami Al-Arian.
The bizarre case, which has led some to call USF Terrorist U., has left some serious questions for USF President Judy Genshaft, who has been given the unenviable task of deciding the fate of Al-Arian.
Genshaft has, throughout the ordeal, been quiet toward the media, making most of her statements through Michael Reich, director for media relations. This, on its own, is cause for concern for students, who would be affected by an impending decision from the American Association of University Professors to censure USF if Al-Arian is fired.
The question on the minds of many has been the way both Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees has handled the major decisions in the case. Al-Arian made his infamous appearance on The O’Reilly Factor television show on Sept. 26, 2001. Within two days, he was suspended. The BOT was convened for an emergency meeting on Dec. 19, and Genshaft has been faced with the decision of his fate since.
Genshaft has, through Reich, said for months that her decision will come at some point in August. The official reason for the late summer date is that Genshaft needs time to consider all of the evidence and reflect. The timing, however, has presented a question for observers.
The Dec. 19 meeting of the BOT as well as the August decision on Al-Arian’s fate both fall in periods were there is little or no student and faculty presence on the campus. In addition, The Oracle does not publish during this time. These facts beg the question: Is Genshaft avoiding publicity?
In addition, when the BOT voted to increase tuition significantly for out-of-state students, it was held by conference call, with Genshaft participating from Raleigh, NC. Both Genshaft and the BOT disconnected before media questions were asked. The next tuition-increase vote will take place in August, again when no students are present and The Oracle does not publish.
The BOT also voted on a parking-decal fee increase. The vote took place at the Sarasota Campus, 60 miles from those who would be affected.
When asked about the question of whether she was avoiding criticism, Genshaft said that August and December are common times for faculty decisions, as they mark semester changes. Genshaft used the same reason for her controversial dismissal of former USF-St. Petersburg campus executive officer Bill Heller, saying the decision to ask him to step down was made during the summer because it’s a convenient, between-semester time. The decision to dismiss Heller came in early June. The question must be asked: Why could Al-Arian’s decision not be made at anytime during the summer instead of the weeks when few people are on campus?
Along with leaving several of these questions unanswered, the university administration does not seem to be in agreement on what information is new or pertinent.
When The Tampa Tribune’s June 23 article used unnamed sources to finger Al-Arian as a member of Jihad, Reich commented that the administration had known of his Jihad links for some time, and the article did not change the situation. Yet, two days later Genshaft talked of the new information in the story she must consider.
In addition, when a USF-St. Petersburg student questioned her regarding trust in reference to the Heller situation, Genshaft became visibly angry and appeared shaken.
But many at USF seem to have lost her trust. And whatever the outcome, the university will be polarized.
No matter what the decision, however, will Genshaft remain open and upfront with students and faculty who may be facing an AAUP reprimand? If she decides to fire Al-Arian, Genshaft will be asked to explain why a man who is a tenured professor and has not been charged with a crime is subject to firing by the university. She will also be asked by on-campus faculty organizations and the AAUP why they believe academic freedom is at issue and she does not.
If she reinstates Al-Arian, the death threats may continue to be sent. In addition, enrollment may suffer as parents concerned for their children’s safety consider other options.
Has Genshaft already made her decision? That is something that will never be known.
Whatever Genshaft’s choice, her reasons are vitally important because the decision is being watched nationwide and even worldwide. Two important concerns remain, will Genshaft answer questions about her decision from the students, or will there even be any students on campus to ask?