USF avoids censure

The American Association of University Professors on Saturday made what appears to have been unprecedented decision on a no doubt unprecedented case.

The group, widely recognized as the purveyor of academic standards in higher education, voted to condemn USF for its actions against former professor and alleged terrorist Sami Al-Arian.

The condemnation falls short of a censure, the group’s gravest punishment.

The vote is unprecedented because it is believed USF is the first institution to ever be condemned. The case is unprecedented because of the serious allegations with which the government is charging Al-Arian, who has been closely monitored by the FBI for nearly 10 years. The government, which believes he is the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has amassed more than 21,000 hours of tape from wire taps it has set up on his phones. Al-Arian is expected to go to trial in January 2005.

And that made the censure decision all the more tricky. The voting body of the AAUP typically censures a university while offering advice for reestablishing a relationship with the aggrieved. However, with Al-Arian sitting in federal prison, no member was able to issue any suggestions for how USF could come clean if censure was applied.

Some say censure would diminish the university’s reputation and cheapen student degrees, but it is unclear what ramifications condemnation holds.

In a news release Saturday, USF President Judy Genshaft lauded the AAUP for not casting its black mark on the school, but still questioned how it could condemn USF.

“The AAUP was correct not to censure USF,” Genshaft said. “However, I cannot fathom how the AAUP can look at the same set of facts we looked at and come to the conclusion to condemn us for terminating Dr. Al-Arian.”

As far as censure goes, though, USF is not yet out of the woods yet. The group also voted to send the issue back to an investigating committee, meaning USF could again find itself a vote away from being censured this time next year.

USF officials have argued that censure is unnecessary, partly because they feel they made the right decision in firing Al-Arian and partly because they say they have remedied some of the problems the AAUP has cited. For instance, faculty members that the school intends to fire will now be provided a faculty hearing. Also, USF spokesman Michael Reich said last week faculty is also helping the Board of Trustees develop a permanent set of faculty rules.

Associate general secretary of the AAUP, Jordan Kurland, could not be reached for comment, but in a news release, the AAUP said USF circumvented “normal procedures of academic due process” and, by firing Al-Arian just days after his arrest, USF violated the “cardinal American principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.'”

Despite the allegations, Genshaft held firm in her statement.

” … USF has found Dr. Al-Arian used his university position to support terrorism. Criminal or not, that’s solid ground for termination. Terminating Dr. Al-Arian was the right decision, at the right time, for the right reasons,” she said.

The AAUP first took issue with USF in late 2001 when Genshaft moved to fire Al-Arian. Two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the former computer science professor appeared on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor and was questioned about his long-standing terrorist links.

Two days later, the Computer Science and Engineering Building, where Al-Arian was teaching, was evacuated after the school received a series of death threats.

Later that day, Genshaft placed Al-Arian on paid leave, citing his and the school’s safety. Three months later, on Dec. 19, the BOT recommended Genshaft terminate him. Hours later, she composed a letter of intent to terminate and had it delivered to his home.

Both faculty bodies on campus, the Faculty Senate and faculty union, voiced their disapproval of Genshaft’s decision, and in March 2002, the AAUP sent a 3-member committee to USF to investigate the situation.

Following a second visit in April 2002, the committee spent the next 10 months writing the report, which stood as the basis for the members’ votes Saturday.

The group, which boasts 40,000 members nationwide, held its annual meeting in the nation’s capital in front of 300 of those members.