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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2002
If you are looking for a blueprint on how to take an up-and-coming research university and turn it into a handmaiden for opponents to academic freedom, just take a look at the University of South Florida. Since the arrival of its new president, Judy Genshaft, USF has been the scene of two untoward decisions that have stained the university's reputation so indelibly one has to wonder if a solvent exists that can clean it up.
The first swing at an open and free learning environment at USF came when a female art student took the university to court, challenging the curriculum in one of her art classes. Rather than fight the frivolous (not to mention dangerous) lawsuit, USF entered into a generous settlement.
In May 2001, under President Genshaft's watch, student Nicole Ferry was offered $25,000 to settle a lawsuit that claimed she was "sexually harassed" when she was exposed to a photograph of a black man appearing to have sex with a white woman during a class on controversial art. The picture showed a man's back and a woman's hands clutching his buttocks.
There were 250 students in the class that day, all had been warned of the nature of some of the subject matter and had been given the option of skipping the class. Ferry chose to stay, then sued.
In the uproar following news of the settlement -- the school's professors questioned whether their own scholarship, if attacked, might be similarly undermined -- the school issued a statement distancing itself from the decision to settle. USF blamed the state's Division of Risk Management which, the university claimed, had overruled its objections and settled the suit to avoid the costs and risks of continued litigation. The school's interim general counsel R.B. Friedlander says the school has since deemed the photograph to have a pedagogic purpose and it is welcome back on campus.
Somehow, that isn't sufficiently comforting. Despite its protestations, the university agreed to sign the settlement and pay Ferry a handsome sum, implicitly inviting other students offended by their course work to run to court as well. Knowing these dangers, a principled university president would have drawn a line in the sand.
The second incident, which is now gaining serious national attention, is Genshaft's stated intention to fire tenured computer science professor Sami Al-Arian due to the swirl of controversy over his activist Islamist views. Here Genshaft cannot deflect blame for besmirching the university's reputation. She made the call, and it's once again the wrong one for academic freedom and free speech.
Al-Arian is ardently pro-Palestinian and has vocally defended the Palestinian uprising against Israel. In September, only two weeks after the terrorist attacks, he appeared on the television show The O'Reilly Factor, where a furor was whipped up after an old video was aired in which Al-Arian spouted the invective: "death to Israel." The appearance suggested that Al-Arian had ties to terrorists through an Islamic studies think tank he had run. (Al-Arian, while a controversial figure, has never been charged with any crime linking him to a terrorist organization, despite an intensive and years-long investigation by the FBI.) Immediately after the program aired, USF and Al-Arian were barraged by an outpouring of angry letters and e-mails, including death threats.
Al-Arian's safety was potentially at risk. But rather than close ranks around him and promise him protection against the threatened violence, Genshaft banished him from campus -- treating him as if he were the wrongdoer when her ire should have been directed at the thugs making the threats.
Months later, with the backing of the Board of Trustees, she announced her intention to fire him for being a disruption to the campus and other conspicuously fatuous and disingenuous reasons. A final decision on his firing is expected soon.
The actions harken back to USF in the early 1960s, when a teaching invitation to history professor D.F. Fleming was retracted because the professor wrote about the Cold War in a way that critics found un-American. Then, the university was responding to pressure from the Florida Coalition of Patriotic Societies and a committee of the State Legislature known as the Johns Committee, whose mission was to sniff out "subversives" and homosexuals on college campuses. Today, of course, the bogeyman of academe isn't socialists; it's Islamists like Al-Arian. But the ailment is the same -- a hair-trigger intolerance for anyone who speaks up in sympathy with the point of view of America's perceived enemy.
How sadly predictable it is that we learn nothing from history.
Spilling platitudes about academic freedom when things are calm is easy. But when controversy engulfed USF both in the 1960s and now -- putting dollars from donors at risk and enraging legislators who hold the university's purse strings -- the school's presidents easily dispensed with the niceties of free thought. Genshaft is helping to secure USF's reputation once again as place where principles are only respected when there's nothing to lose. Good show.