USF Faculty Union Supports Al-Arian

January 11, 2002

By Babita Persaud at St. Petersburg Times

A union representing University of South Florida professors voted Thursday night to throw its full support behind fired professor Sami Al-Arian as he fights to regain his job at USF.

The meeting of the United Faculty of Florida, held off campus at a pizza parlor on Fowler Avenue, was attended by Al-Arian, a union member, and about 40 faculty members.

“We are on record saying they did the wrong thing,” said Roy Weatherford, president of the union’s USF chapter.

USF president Judy Genshaft decided to fire Al-Arian on Dec. 19, saying his presence on campus created a safety concern and that he had failed to distance himself from the university when presenting his views on U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Al-Arian, a USF professor for 16 years, received death threats after appearing on the FOX News show The O’Reilly Factor and being grilled about his alleged ties to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader.

After a three-hour meeting Thursday that was closed to the press, union members emerged with a multipointed resolution blasting Genshaft and the university’s board of trustees, which had recommended Al-Arian’s firing to Genshaft.

The resolution said it was unjust to fire a tenured professor for not adding a disclaimer before stating an opinion. It also said the safety concerns cited by the university were exaggerated.

Al-Arian has until Monday to respond to a letter from Genshaft informing him of her decision to fire him. Should Genshaft not change her mind by Monday, and should Al-Arian file a grievance instead of accept his firing, the union will offer monetary and legal support, said Weatherford.

The grievance process can ultimately lead to an outside arbitrator who would decide whether the firing should stand.

Tom Auxter, the statewide president of the UFF, attended Thursday’s meeting and said a statewide steering committee will decide whether to honor the chapter’s request for monetary and legal help in a meeting in Orlando this weekend. Auxter expects the committee will support the USF chapter.

The union’s move is the strongest faculty response so far. Wednesday, the Faculty Senate decided not to support Genshaft and voted to establish a committee to study issues of academic freedom at USF. However, the senate stopped short of voting to support Al- Arian.

Also Thursday, Al-Arian contacted the free speech advocacy group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is in Philadelphia. The group has put Al-Arian in contact with Jonathan L. Katz, a First Amendment lawyer from Washington.

“Right now, Jonathan Katz is working as a consultant, but he does First Amendment litigation,” said Thor Halvorssen, executive director for the foundation. ”

We’ll have a statement regarding our involvement on Monday. The university’s behavior in this case is a litigator’s dream.”

– Times staff writer Steve Hegarty contributed to this report.

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