A year after the early-morning arrest of Sami Al-Arian made headlines around the country, the media whirlwind that for so long swirled around this campus has quieted.
Gone are the days of news vans crowding the loop outside the Administration Building, with antennas pointed skyward, beaming the sights and sounds of controversy across the ether.
Gone are the periodic, emotional protests held by angry students, convinced the former computer science and engineering professor was mistreated by USF’s administration and the U.S. government.
And gone are the spats between the faculty and administration over what is and what is not protected by academic freedom.
Those issues, for the most part, have been tamed by history here at USF. Fifty counts of terrorism-related charges and 365 days can change a lot, and for Michael Reich, who has served as USF’s official spokesman since the ordeal first broke in September 2001, the change is a welcome one.
“Every time (the case surfaces) in the news, it mentions USF, and that’s something that will be there forever,” he said. “That said, it’s not USF in the headlines anymore, and that’s a good thing.”
Things have certainly quieted down around the president’s office during the past year. Two years ago, Judy Genshaft was consumed by the saga. She was being criticized by faculty for moving to fire Al-Arian too quickly, and as a result of that, the American Association of University Professors were threatening to censure her administration for violating academic freedom.
“I go to bed thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it,” Genshaft said in an interview in February 2002.
But that all passed over, too. The AAUP decided not to censure USF last June, opting instead for a less painful “condemnation” and the faculty and administration are now on the same page when it comes to the academic freedom issue, Reich said.
“I think Mr. Reich is right about that,” said Roy Weatherford, president of USF’s faculty union, posing a stark contrast to comments made less than two years ago when he barked at a Faculty Senate meeting that the administration “is going to screw us.”
The collective bargaining agreement back then was set to expire within a few months, the rules concerning academic freedom set to be re-written.
But dialogue on both sides has led the two parties to come to an understanding, and when they sit down to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement, academic freedom shouldn’t be that big of an issue, Weatherford said.
“On both sides, there’s a real understanding that academic freedom is at the core and that it offers certain protections,” Reich said.
And much has been learned in dealing with the ordeal. Reich said he’s much better at his job of gathering and dispatching information regarding the university. In the past two years, he’s gained more experience dealing with the media in the Al-Arian case than most deal with in their careers. Though, he admitted jokingly, he feels like he’s aged 30 years.
Weatherford said he thinks the administration and the Board of Trustees have also learned from the controversy.
“The Board of Trustees does not naturally have an understanding and a gut feeling for the nature of academic freedom, and they did make a mistake,” he said. “But I think that they have learned from that. It is less likely that our Board will take that kind of precipitous action in the future, and I think the administration is trying hard to reassure the faculty that they do value academic freedom.”
BOT chairman Dick Beard said that while the press was bad for the university, the process of dealing with a situation like Al-Arian’s has had its benefits.
“I think we understand each other,” Beard said of the faculty and administration’s relationship.
Beard doesn’t have many regrets when he looks back at how he and his board handled the situation. Al-Arian was exploiting USF for its resources and his arrest simply solidified his suspicions, he said. But having the perspective to reflect, there is one thing, he said, he would have done differently.
“We were a new board,” Beard said. “The process at the university is much more important than maybe we understood it to be, but it might have been less complicated for the university had the process been followed.”
Al-Arian is set to face trial on charges of racketeering and conspiracy to murder in January 2005.