USF mute on verdict

The tremors of Tuesday’s verdict have already reached USF, and bad blood between faculty members and the administration may resurface as a result.

The case of Sami Al-Arian began more than four years ago when Al-Arian appeared on the FOX News program The O’Reilly Factor just days after the events of Sept. 11, when terrorism was at the forefront of all Americans’ minds.

On his program, O’Reilly insinuated that Al-Arian was a terrorist, causing the USF administration to act quickly. The Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting to discuss the future of Al-Arian and USF while students were away on winter break. They chose, without speaking with Al-Arian, that he should be placed on paid leave. It was at that point that the USF faculty union got involved.

“That was a clear violation of due process,” said Roy Weatherford, president of the faculty union. “When he was finally charged in federal court and incarcerated, he couldn’t do his job.”

Following his arrest, the University officially fired Al-Arian.

“At that time, the University was not accepting union grievances after the Legislature abolished the Board of Regents,” Weatherford said. “The faculty no longer had bargaining rights. (Al-Arian) filed an administrative grievance that was put on hold until the trial resolves.”

Now that the trial is close to being resolved, the grievance may be followed up and Al-Arian may seek to reclaim his position at USF. That might result in some kind of action in the future.

“The hostility on campus was slightly between people who supported Al-Arian and his position and those against,” Weatherford said. “The big fight was between the people who thought he should have due process – the union – and those who thought he should be fired immediately -the administration.”

USF Media Relations released a brief statement regarding the case against Al-Arian: “The University of South Florida is watching the recent legal developments. USF ended Sami Al-Arian’s employment nearly three years ago, and we do not expect anything to change that.”

USF President Judy Genshaft is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Harry Vanden, professor of government and international affairs, believes Al-Arian’s departure from USF was a matter of the administration jumping the gun.

“I think USF comes up in a very difficult position,” Vanden said. “I think it makes it seem as though minimally we didn’t respect his rights, we didn’t respect tenure and that we jumped the gun and – that USF caved into a lot of political pressure and frankly hysteria after 9/11.”

The faculty union and the administration have since bridged the gap created in the aftermath of the Al-Arian case and have agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement. But that work could be unraveled if the two sides don’t see eye to eye.

“If we all agree on what should be done, it won’t do any damage,” Weatherford said. “If we disagree, there may be conflict. I don’t know yet what they are going to try to do.”

The administration will have to wait until the final nine counts against Al-Arian are resolved to make its next move. Provost Renu Khator, who was the dean of the College Arts and Sciences when Al-Arian was a professor in the College of Engineering at USF, limited comment until the final verdict.

“We’re going to see what happens tomorrow, what exactly comes out and what decision the judge makes,” Khator said. “We’ll just wait.”

Judging by comments made by BOT Chairman Dick Beard in an article published April 17 in the St. Petersburg Times where he stated, “He’s out of our life, and I hope he stays out,” the University may not welcome Al-Arian back with open arms if he is fully acquitted. Vanden sees otherwise.

“I think as the full facts of the verdict in the case filter through, I think it really behooves the University of South Florida and President Genshaft to consider very carefully whether they might want to apologize to Dr. Al-Arian and reinstate him,” Vanden said.

While the lingering effect of the trial may stay with USF for years, Weatherford hopes that USF can learn from its actions against Al-Arian.

“I think that a lot more people are going to understand why we said you should have the trial first and then the punishment, not the punishment first and then the trial,” Weatherford said. “Everybody is entitled to due process. It’s wrong to punish or fire someone because some people don’t like them, disagree with them or think they are probably guilty.”