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Returning to tell his story

Forty years ago, Sheldon Grebstein gave an assignment to students that he would never see completed.

The reason?

USF administration suspended the former assistant English professor because it considered the assignment too controversial.

That suspension sparked a debate about academic freedom akin to USF’s current situation with problematic professor Sami Al-Arian.

Today Grebstein returns to campus to speak for the first time since his ousting in 1962.

“It will be a very emotional trip back,” said Fraser Ottanelli, a U.S. history professor at USF.

Because of the USF faculty union’s concern about academic freedom, Ottanelli, a union member, said he invited Grebstein to speak at USF.

Grebstein’s suspension sparked the attention of the American Association of University Professors, which, soon after, censured USF.

Ottanelli said members of the union have been concerned with the situation at USF for almost a year. USF President Judy Genshaft moved to fire Al-Arian after his Sept. 26 appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. Genshaft put Al-Arian on administrative leave two days later because she said campus safety became threatened.

“Unfortunately, the university does not have a good record,” Ottanelli said. “We are risking twice now being censured by the AAUP.

“(Grebstein) was talent lost to our community. This was clearly a violation of academic freedom.”

Genshaft, who spoke Wednesday night at the College of Education, refused to comment about the situation following the event.

The loss, Ottanelli said, came when Grebstein left USF after then university president John Allen censured the professor in 1962 for a writing assignment that featured an article titled “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” which criticized beatnik authors.

Beatniks are considered those who indulge in self-expression against society and dress unconventionally.

The article contained mild profanity but also included scholarly content that provided an academic supplement to universities across the nation, according to the union’s Web site.

When then Florida senator Charley E. Johns received copies of the article, he called for a meeting with the university’s Board of Regents and Allen to demand Grebstein’s dismissal.

In the early 1960s, an investigative team in Tampa referred to as the Johns Committee searched for students and faculty at USF who were perceived as members of the Communist Party. The Johns Committee monitored educational trends at the university to determine if there were any students or faculty who practiced communism.

This was the time when academic freedom was first violated at USF, said Ottanelli.

“USF was not behaving the way it should,” Ottanelli said. “(Grebstein) had been disciplined by the administration.”

After Grebstein resigned from the university, he left to accept a position at Harpur College in New York, Ottanelli said. Grebstein, former president of SUNY at Purchase will speak at the Grace Allen room in the library at 2 today.

However, Ottanelli said Grebstein does not plan to discuss Al-Arian’s case.

“Of course, he is not familiar with the case, and it would not be appropriate for him to discuss it,” Ottanelli said.