Talk of censure hangs over USF
By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- The University of South Florida's reputation took a significant hit when professor Sami Al-Arian's alleged ties to terrorists were aired on national television.
But another blow is looming, this one in the world of academia.
USF president Judy Genshaft will speak via telephone this week to Jordan E. Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. The subject will be her impending decision to fire Al-Arian, a tenured professor of computer engineering.
If the conversation goes badly, the AAUP may consider censuring USF. Such a move would embarrass the school nationally and make it harder to keep and recruit quality faculty.
"Within the academic community, it is a symbolic black mark," said Ellen Schrecker, a historian with Yeshiva University in New York.
"It says that a university is not behaving like a university," said Fraser Ottanelli, a USF professor of history.
Since its inception in 1915, the AAUP has taken a lead role in developing the principles and standards that govern the relationship between faculty and administration in higher education.
Hundreds of organizations adhere to AAUP principles, including the Modern Language Association, the American Political Science Association and the Association of American Law Schools.
Their members look to the AAUP to tell them which universities are credible.
The AAUP started watching USF after Al-Arian was grilled in late September 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.
Al-Arian was put on paid leave and banned from campus. But there were calls for his dismissal from alumni and prominent donors. On Dec. 19, USF's Board of Trustees recommended Al-Arian be fired. Genshaft quickly sent him a notice of termination.
Two days later, Kurland sent Genshaft a letter.
"Central among the issues . . . (is) Prof. Al-Arian having the academic freedom as a citizen to speak out on controversial topics," Kurland wrote. "We shall accordingly be maintaining a close watch on the situation."
Genshaft said she takes the AAUP very seriously, but says the firing of Al-Arian is a contractual issue, not one of academic freedom.
She said he violated his employment contract by failing to make clear that his off-campus remarks reflect personal views and not those of the university. She said he violated an agreement with USF administrators by returning to campus after being put on leave.
Al-Arian denies both charges. And if Genshaft fires him -- a decision expected this week -- the Palestinian professor has said he will file a grievance through the faculty union and, if necessary, a federal lawsuit.
The firing also could trigger action by the AAUP. If it leads to a formal censure, USF would become only the 10th university in the AAUP's 87-year history to have been blacklisted twice.
In 1964, then-USF president John Allen refused to hire D.F. Fleming, a political scientist who had written a book critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. That led to four years on the AAUP censure list.
USF does not want it to happen again.
Phi Beta Kappa, the national scholarly honorary society, will not establish a new chapter at a university under censure. USF has been trying to attract a Phi Beta chapter for 30 years.
A censure also could affect faculty hiring. In some academic disciplines, job postings appear in association bulletins with an asterisk: This university is censured by the AAUP.
Many professors will not accept a position at a censured university. And "often faculty members at a particular school that is censured will try to find jobs and leave," Schrecker said.
There is no timetable for AAUP action, which could take months and is independent of any route Al-Arian might pursue.
How USF responds to the organization is important to both its reputation and its future, said David Kerr, president of the Florida Conference of the AAUP and a USF alumni.
"USF has this desire to be a top-tier research university that is internationally known," he said.
But that can't happen, Kerr said, if "there is this resolve of not observing principles of academic freedom."
-- Times researcher Catherine Wos contributed to this report.
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