USF President’s Choice Carries Ramifications

February 2, 2002

By Graham Brink at St. Petersburg Times

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft says her decision on whether to fire controversial professor Sami Al-Arian is one of the most important in the school’s 46-year history.

But the stakes may be just as high for her.

Some academics think a decision to fire Al-Arian could cripple any ambitions she may harbor to run a more prestigious university.

“At good universities, the faculty have power and those faculties would never agree to someone being hired who is widely believed to have caved in to political pressure,” said Roy Weatherford, president of USF’s faculty union. But if Genshaft decides against Al-Arian’s termination, she risks alienating her board of trustees, which voted 12-1 in favor of his firing, and Florida’s governor and secretary of education. Both endorsed the board’s recommendation.

Genshaft, 54, acknowledges her dilemma. But she said Friday that she prefers to stay focused on what’s best for the university.

“It’s not about my career. It’s about USF,” she said. “USF has the character to withstand adversity and move forward.”

Genshaft has been seeking advice from many people as she struggles toward a final decision. She has talked to students, faculty members and leaders at other universities.

“The more research she does, the more I think she is realizing the import of this decision to the university and to her own future,” said Ellen Kimmel, a distinguished service professor in USF’s College of Education who offered her advice to Genshaft.

Kimmel said she urged the president to retain Al-Arian, a tenured professor of computer science whom federal authorities have linked to terrorists. She said she doesn’t know what Genshaft will do.

Genshaft landed in her predicament after Al-Arian appeared Sept. 26 on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. The show’s report on his ties to terrorists – allegations he has vehemently denied – elicited hundreds of angry phone calls to USF and at least a dozen death threats.

Citing safety concerns, Genshaft placed Al-Arian on paid leave and banned him from campus. Meanwhile, at the urging of one of the trustees, the university hired a private attorney to determine whether there were grounds to fire him.

On Dec. 19, the attorney told the board there were. A few hours later, Genshaft sent the Palestinian-born professor a notice of her intention to dismiss him.

She said the action was warranted because the university could not guarantee his safety or that of students, faculty and staff. She said Al-Arian violated an agreement not to return to campus while on leave, and violated his employment contract by failing to make clear that remarks he made off campus were his personal views.

Genshaft said Friday that the vast majority of people she has spoken with support firing Al-Arian. She said that view crosses racial and ethnic lines.

But there is plenty of opposition.

USF’s Faculty Senate refused to endorse his firing. The faculty union has offered to provide AlArian with legal representation.

The New York Times weighed in last week with an editorial that says “the complaints (against AlArian) are groundless and make a mockery of free speech and academic freedom.”

National Muslim groups have said Al-Arian’s case reeks of bigotry. Even O’Reilly, whose show stoked the controversy, has said he doesn’t think a professor should be fired for “saying stuff you don’t like.”

Richard Beard, chairman of USF’s board of trustees, said talk of Genshaft never getting another job if she fires Al-Arian is “nonsense.”

He said Al-Arian “terrorized our campus, not only economically but the learning environment as well.”

He said it would be “intolerable” to keep Al-Arian around given what is known about him. Other universities would understand her decision, he said, and “hail her for it.”

But Beard said he will support Genshaft even if she elects to retain Al-Arian. He thinks the rest of the board will do the same.

Gov. Bush and education secretary Jim Horne also will back Genshaft regardless of what she decides, spokeswomen for both said this week.

Thor Halvorssen, a spokesman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group dedicated to free speech and academic freedom, said Genshaft could still turn her dilemma into an opportunity.

Although some academics think she already has damaged herself irreparably, he thinks what matters most is what happens next.

If she reverses course, Halvorssen said, “she would go down as someone who stood against political correctness, stood against mob mentality, stood against political expediency.”

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