Al-Arian pledges to fight for job
By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Accusing the University of South Florida of bigotry, professor Sami Al-Arian on Monday announced he will fight his dismissal and challenged the board of trustees to hear his side.
"I am not the culprit here," Al-Arian said.
Al-Arian did not have that opportunity when the board met in an emergency session Dec. 19, with much of the campus shut down for the winter break.
Hours later, USF president Judy Genshaft announced that she would follow the board's advice and fire Al-Arian because he had failed to distance his outspoken views about Israel and the Palestinians from the university and he had become a security risk.
Al-Arian had until Monday to respond. His response came in a letter to provost S. David Stamps and later at a news conference at the Islamic Community of Tampa compound in North Tampa.
"America is the only place you can fight and fight to win," Al-Arian said.
The fight could take months.
If the board rejects his request to hear from him and reconsider its recommendation, Al-Arian said he will file a formal union grievance to regain the job he has held for 16 years.
Although Al-Arian is still being paid, he will be removed from the payroll if Genshaft, as expected, makes a final determination to fire him this week. Al-Arian would seek back pay as well as reinstatement, said his attorney, Robert F. McKee.
Al-Arian made it clear he is prepared to file a lawsuit if his union grievance fails.
The grievance process involves an outside arbitrator, chosen by both sides, who would investigate the case and possibly hold hearings.
The United Faculty of Florida, which represents professors, will back Al-Arian on the local and state level, giving him legal and financial assistance.
Genshaft has said Al-Arian faces dismissal for purely contractual reasons, not on issues of free speech or academic freedom. Genshaft said Al-Arian violated three provisions of his collective bargaining agreement. On Monday, Al-Arian and his attorney responded for the first time to each allegation:
He failed to distance himself from the university when discussing issues not connected to his specialty of computer engineering. Al-Arian said he in fact does distance himself and that he frequently identified himself as a Muslim leader or civil rights advocate in news reports.
He said he told the producers of The O'Reilly Factor on Sept. 26 -- public reaction to his comments on that show spurred Al-Arian's current troubles -- that he did not wish to be identified as a USF professor. He wanted to be identified as the chairman of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom.
"Mr. O'Reilly's failure to make that distinction during the broadcast was beyond Dr. Al-Arian's control," McKee said.
Al-Arian went on campus after he was banned. Al-Arian said he was not told he was banned until Oct. 8, three days after his meeting with a student Muslim association of which he is an adviser.
Al-Arian said he was asked on Oct. 8 to pick up the letter informing him he was banned from the campus. But to pick it up, he had to go on campus, he said.
Al-Arian engaged in activities that put his private interest in conflict with the public interest of the university. McKee simply called that claim "without merit."
Genshaft issued a statement Monday, saying she "will carefully weigh all aspects of his response, just as I have weighed all of the facts of this case up to this point."
She said safety is her primary concern. "This is a unique case of how one person's activities outside the scope of his employment have resulted in harm to the legitimate interests of the university," Genshaft said. "A safe campus is essential for academic freedom, learning and teaching to flourish."
Monday's news conference was at a hall decorated with an American flag and educational posters on Islam. Also attending were representatives of some of the largest Muslim groups in the country, including the American Muslim Council and the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. They sat in a long row of chairs surrounding the podium.
Eric Vickers, an attorney for the American Muslim Alliance, called Genshaft's actions "bigotry and prejudice against the entire Muslim community."
Al-Arian agreed. "What they did to me is an expression of all these words," said Al-Arian said.
Vickers said Genshaft tried to categorize Al-Arian as a terrorist, although he has been investigated by the FBI and never charged with a crime.
"It is the actions of the university and the president that is un-American," said Vickers.
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