People referred to him simply as the English professor. But those who knew about academic freedom knew about Sheldon Grebstein.
The former USF professor’s name was at the forefront of discussion decades ago in Florida for a class assignment that took his career to another state. Now, as controversial professor Sami Al-Arian has been on the minds of administrators, academic freedom has made its way into conversation again among USF’s faculty union.
“It has been a tradition in the state of Florida that there is an oversight on academic freedom,” Grebstein said Thursday.
Grebstein made his first appearance at USF in 40 years to speak to faculty and students about his plight for academic freedom.
He shared his story about how his suspension from USF led to the American Association of University Professors censuring USF for violating freedom of speech. The same issue is now a concern the faculty union has expressed since USF President Judy Genshaft moved to fire Al-Arian.
“It’s a strange feeling to wake up every morning and see your name emblazoned on the front of the newspaper,” Grebstein said. “This was a novel event in the history of the universities in Florida.”
Grebstein said he remembers being interrupted while he was teaching his advanced writing course to meet with then-USF-president John Allen.
“He showed me the document and asked if I had used it in my class and why,” Grebstein said. After Grebstein explained his reasons for using an article that criticized beatniks, those who disagree with society’s interests – he said the only thing Allen had to say was: “You are hereby suspended.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Grebstein said.It was later that Grebstein learned that the Johns Committee, an investigative group that sought out members of the Communist Party, and the Board of Control had an influence on Allen’s decision to suspend him. And a student who was the child of an active member of the Johns Committee was in his class, which Grebstein said is how the administration learned about the writing assignment.
“The first 24 hours were terrifying for me because teaching was all I’ve done,” Grebstein said. “I was afraid I would be blacklisted nationally. Who would hire a person like that?”
Grebstein said Allen later offered to reinstate him but with censure, which he refused and left to take a position at Harpur College in New York, later becoming the president of the State University of New York at Purchase.
“I have come to feel some sympathy for President Allen,” Grebstein said. “I realize now (Allen and the Board of Control) were under a lot of pressure.”
And now Grebstein said the Board of Trustees has become more state supported rather than state funded, which causes universities to rely on a tight budget.
“The boards tend not to be sympathetic to faculty and academic freedom,” Grebstein said.
Michael Reich, director of media relations, said academic freedom is, in fact, in the interest of board members.
“Academic freedom is the basic tenet of this university, rather than funding to the university,” Reich said.
Grebstein added that donations to the university are an important source of income for the budget.
“Those can be very powerful influences on the university,” Grebstein said.
But Reich said that has never been the reason for Genshaft’s decision to have Al-Arian removed from campus.
“Donors give their money to make a difference not an influence,” Reich said. “The actions taken against him so far have been taken because of his conduct and discipline.”
Nahla Al-Arian said after Grebstein’s lecture that she feels racism was an issue for her husband’s dismissal.
“Why would they support the underdog,” Al-Arian asked. “That’s why we need a BOT with an academic background.”