On a collision course

Roy Weatherford and Sami Al-Arian: The two men who have haunted USF President Judy Genshaft for months.

Both have been speeding locomotives, racing along at the heads of two huge controversies with ramifications beyond the bounds of USF’s campus. Genshaft has continually had to react to inflammatory statements from one or the other. She has had to face heated criticism as she tries to quell faculty concerns and deal with a hopeless situation surrounding a tenured professor she asked to leave campus.

But as of 4 p.m. Monday, Genshaft was faced with what is possibly her biggest nightmare. The locomotives have joined together on the same track. Their fates are now intertwined, and they are speeding into the station.

Weatherford announced Monday that, as one of his final acts as faculty union president under the current collective bargaining agreement that expires today, he filed grievances for Al-Arian. The two appeared in the same law office during the same news conference in defiance of the same administration.

Suddenly, for Genshaft, the stakes seem a lot higher. As Al-Arian’s attorney, Robert McKee said he, the faculty union and his client are now on the offensive.

In fact, the faculty union’s move today seems well-calculated. It makes a defiant statement to the USF Board of Trustees, which Weatherford has blamed for not protecting the collective bargaining agreement. More importantly, it forces Genshaft’s hand in the Al-Arian case, not allowing her to wait until the collective bargaining agreement has ended to decide whether to fire Al-Arian.

According to Weatherford, the collective bargaining agreement does not end until 5 p.m. today. The faculty union has called for the university to skip the first two steps in the grievance process and proceed immediately to arbitration. If the university is unwilling to do this, the union has called for a Step 1 hearing at 2 p.m. or later today.

For the last few months, accusations directed toward Genshaft have suggested she is stalling until the collective bargaining agreement ends so that she can fire Al-Arian under the BOT’s 16 emergency rules. Weatherford and others have claimed the wording in those rules allow the administration to fire professors for almost anything.

Genshaft has repeatedly denied those accusations, and even if she does fire Al-Arian under the 16 rules, he may still be entitled to collective bargaining agreement protection because his paid leave began while it was still in place. But that would probably be a matter for the courts to decide.

Now that the union has called for arbitration, after 15 months of lawsuits and harsh words, the grievance process is suddenly under way. The university may be forced to react. If it does not, McKee may argue in court that the grievance process as listed in the collective bargaining agreement began before the deadline. Therefore, those would be the rules under which the case would have to be handled.

As an almost added dig at the university, the faculty union pointed out that under the still-in-place collective bargaining agreement, the grievant, Al-Arian, must be present for a Step 1 hearing. The union’s memorandum points out that the customary location for such hearings is in the Administration Building. Therefore, if the hearing were to take place, Genshaft will be forced to allow the man she has kept off campus since September 2001 not only on campus but in the same building as her office. If she refuses, she only provides more ammunition for Al-Arian’s legal team.

No matter what happens, it seems the university will be forced to act. And, as before, more litigation seems likely.

But beyond the complicated legal ramifications of Monday’s action, what does the union’s maneuvering say about the current state of politics at USF?

Quite simply, the battle lines have been drawn, and the faculty is pitted squarely against the administration.

Onlookers at any number of faculty council, senate and union meetings can feel a palpable distrust in the air. Discussion has even worked its way into the classroom, where faculty members have ranted about unfair treatment.

Not helping the situation is Genshaft’s recent raise of nearly $90,000, or, as Weatherford put it, “more than most of our salaries.”

In fact, Genshaft’s raise could not have come at a worse time. The faculty feels it is being treated unfairly and that the BOT was worried about signing Genshaft while leaving other employees out in the cold. It seems that Genshaft’s large raise has grated on already raw nerves.

But it also seems the university’s biggest mistake was not calming faculty fears when they first began to flare. For months, administration officials have consistently told the media that Weatherford is wrong. Genshaft has never spoken directly to faculty organizations about any of their issues. In fact, she has been near silent, speaking most of the time through media relations director Michael Reich. Therefore, the faculty displeasure has risen to a feverish pitch, and the university has done little to help.

The situation has gotten to the point for the administration that the dean of the university’s largest college, Renu Khator of Arts and Sciences, has thrown her support behind the union.

And what is the bottom line of what happened Monday?

The Al-Arian case and the situation involving the faculty are now linked. An American Association of University Professors censure now seems almost inevitable. If the faculty continue to feel mistreated, a stigma will grow around USF. Professors from around the country may acknowledge the institution simply for its faults instead of its good points and decline open positions. Quality of education may suffer.

How will this all end?

It’s hard to say at this point. A conclusion is probably months, if not years, down the road. But one thing is for certain: The damage done by the now-combined issues surrounding the faculty and Al-Arian will not be easily resolved.