Last week, television host Bill O’Reilly called USF president Judy Genshaft a coward. It is not the first time she has been called such, and it may not be the last.
It seems that the announcement of the termination of Sami Al-Arian will do nothing but add fuel to the fire for critics. Their questions will now become ferocious.
Mostly they will ask whether President Genshaft stalled for 18 months, hoping for the perfect situation, such as an arrest, to hide behind while making the controversial decision.
The administration will no doubt say such a question is unfair. But, taxpayers, who have spent more than $100,000 on Al-Arian’s salary, will probably want an answer, especially now that they are about to pay thousands more for his trial.
Also, the conspiracy theorists will let their opinions fly. There has already been some talk. Genshaft had, under her control, an accused terrorist on paid leave. She met with Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a brother in a high office. Here, conspiracy theorists suggest, the government begins controlling Genshaft, telling her what to do. That might be far-fetched, but those questions will rise.
The notice of termination sent to Al-Arian’s attorneys Wednesday feels rushed. A lot of its reasoning seems questionable.
The letter of termination lists six main reasons for which Al-Arian was fired. All of those reasons the university was well aware of before the indictment was handed down. Many of them, indeed, were outlined in the massive recommendation made by former American Bar Association president Reece Smith following his 1996 investigation.
But, right below those reasons, the letter states that it was not until the indictment was released that many of those charges could be confirmed and a termination issued. While that is a reasonable argument for the university, critics will still claim that Genshaft is hiding behind the federal evidence. And, if that is not the case, why did the USF Board of Trustees approve his termination before the indictment and before there was sufficient evidence that Al-Arian had committed wrongs worthy of such a harsh punishment?
But the most interesting clause in the letter comes on the final page. The letter says termination is based on Al-Arian’s conduct alone, “not (his) ability to speak freely in the classroom on controversial topics or (his) right to free speech outside of the classroom.”
Originally, Al-Arian was placed on paid leave because of death threats that arose after a television appearance. He could be terminated, the administration argued, when his “outside of the classroom” free speech compromised campus security. They also said he improperly used his association with USF to make those statements “outside of the classroom.”
By now saying his conduct is the reason for termination and not that original argument, several questions may arise. Why, if his “outside of the classroom” free speech was not the reason for his termination, was he left on paid leave and taken to court under that very argument? If, until the indictment, there was not enough reason to remove Al-Arian, why was he left on paid leave at the taxpayers’ expense? If there was no indictment, would he have been paid to do nothing forever?
Genshaft said Wednesday the decision to fire Al-Arian took 18 months because she needed to consult with faculty, staff and students. Judging by his comments, Roy Weatherford and the faculty union would no doubt wonder when that faculty consultation took place.
Genshaft also said a lot of thoughtful consideration was put into the decision. If that is the case, when the indictment was released and the university’s reasoning for termination changed, would more than six days of further consideration not be needed? Federal Judge Mark Pizzo on Tuesday granted Al-Arian’s attorney three weeks to sift through the complex indictment before a bail hearing.
But, with those questions aside, the wording of the letter is quite troubling. Among the six reasons given for firing Al-Arian was one that read “your fundraising for terrorist organizations.” Others had similar clauses.
Al-Arian may indeed be a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism. But critics will say he is innocent of those crimes until a jury decides he is guilty. The USF administration has convicted Al-Arian of terrorism before a court of law has even asked for his plea.
If nothing else, this is dangerous for the university. Should Al-Arian be found innocent in a trial, the letter of termination is a multi-million dollar lawsuit waiting to happen. Even if he is found guilty, the university seems to have jumped the gun in declaring outright that Al-Arian has terrorist ties.
In addition, the letter condemns Al-Arian for co-founding the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a think tank organization that was accused of being a front for terrorism. USF was associated with this group during the early 1990s.
The Smith report, which investigated the organization, warns that some professors at USF may not have been as careful as they could have been while working with WISE. Some of those professors are still employed by USF.
Smith’s work ended in 1996 after WISE was no longer affiliated with USF. Should the university, however, launch investigations into its own conduct now that it has new information from the indictment that Smith was not privy too? Or will this whole mess just be swept under the rug?
Either way, USF’s reputation may continue to suffer. For the rest of the O’Reilly-watching nation not as familiar with the Al-Arian situation, Genshaft comes off as little more than a pawn in a larger game. And, USF’s reputation as “Jihad U.” seems to be growing.
Perceptions are vitally important in a sound-byte world. And the perception by critics around this termination is that Genshaft stalled for 18 months, waiting for an excuse.