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    Peers weigh Al-Arian matter

    An academic watchdog group interviews USF president Judy Genshaft and the embattled professor.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 16, 2002

    TAMPA -- After spending two hours Friday talking to members of a national academic watchdog organization about Sami Al-Arian, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft declared the discussion "wonderful."

    But she declined to reveal any details about the conversation or her plans for the controversial professor, whose case has become a cause celebre in academia.

    "I don't have a side," Genshaft replied when asked whether she still intended to fire Al-Arian, a tenured professor of computer science who was linked several years ago to suspected terrorists. She said she is still gathering information.

    Friday's meeting was requested by the American Association of University Professors, an organization devoted to academic freedom. The AAUP sent a committee here to interview university administrators and to talk to faculty members.

    Depending on what they hear, the AAUP could decide to censure USF, a drastic step that would make it harder for the university to hire and retain quality faculty. Top faculty are often loath to join a school on the AAUP's censure list.

    Committee members said even less about their meeting than Genshaft. In an effort to avoid reporters, they were led out a back door. A decision on a possible censure isn't expected for at least several months.

    Later in the day, the committee met with Al-Arian. He said afterward that he is confident the AAUP is on his side.

    "I feel great. I think we're going to win this," he said. "I think the university understands the threat of censure if USF terminates me."

    Committee members did not ask Al-Arian about his political views or alleged ties to terrorists. While he has never been detained or charged with a crime, Al-Arian was the focus of a federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected a think tank he operated at USF was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists.

    The committee instead asked Al-Arian about USF's contention that he violated his employment contract, a charge he disputes.

    Al-Arian was banned from campus in September after he appeared 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.

    In December, a university lawyer told USF's board of trustees that Al-Arian's continued employment would compromise campus security and disrupt the university's orderly operation.

    The board agreed and voted 12-1 for his termination. Later that day, Genshaft sent Al-Arian a notice of her intention to fire him.

    The AAUP has publicly stated its opposition to that decision. AAUP leaders told Genshaft last year that the case raises "issues of academic freedom, tenure and due process that are of basic concern to the academic community."

    Genshaft said Friday that the association urged her not to make a hasty decision about Al-Arian's future.

    "I have agreed to do that," she said. She was joined at the meeting by university general counsel R.B. Friedlander and USF provost David Stamps.

    The committee consisted of William Van Alstyne, a much-honored law professor at Duke University; Ann Lesch, a political science professor at Villanova University; and Stephen Leberstein, professor of history at City University of New York. Van Alstyne is set to return next week.

    The USF faculty union supports Al-Arian.

    Union president Roy Weatherford, who sat in on the meeting with Al-Arian on Friday, said the university is discriminating against him.

    Weatherford wants the committee to back Al-Arian but said he hopes the issue is resolved without the AAUP taking action against USF.

    "I wouldn't want them to be censured," said the philosophy professor. "It's a bad thing for everyone."

    -- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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