Professors' group may censure USF over Al-Arian
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
A national group influential in higher education said Saturday that the University of South Florida should return controversial Professor Sami Al-Arian to his teaching duties right away or face possible censure.
A committee of the American Association of University Professors released a statement supporting Al-Arian and urged USF president Judy Genshaft not to fire him, as she had threatened to do last year.
Al-Arian, who is being investigated for a possible link to terrorism, has been on paid leave since late September for statements he made following the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The investigating committee believes that Professor Al-Arian's statements fell well within the (bounds) of academic freedom," according to the statement that was faxed Saturday to USF during the group's annual meeting in Washington. The association will issue a final report after Genshaft makes her decision. Any action, such as censure, would not occur until next summer.
Censure by the group, which wrote many of the principles governing academic freedom in higher education, is a powerful force in academia, one that can have a significant impact on faculty hiring and retention.
USF spokesman Michael Reich said Saturday that the statement was "nothing new" and disputed several aspects, including the assertion that the case hinged on academic freedom. But the president will consider the comments, he said.
"We read the report with interest and we'll consider that with other information we have gathered so far," Reich said.
Genshaft, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, expects to make a final decision by the time classes begin in the fall.
Al-Arian, a tenured computer science professor, became the focus of death threats after his alleged ties to terrorists were aired on national television a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Al-Arian was under federal investigation in the mid-1990s, when agents suspected an Islamic think tank he operated at USF was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists. In February, federal authorities said Al-Arian remained under investigation but would not elaborate. He has not been charged with a crime.
Genshaft has not used the alleged ties to terrorism as a reason for terminating Al-Arian. Instead, she has said that he violated contractual agreements and that his presence on campus would jeopardize the safety of students and faculty.
But the association's committee called some of her reasons insignificant.
"Other currently pending charges against Professor Al-Arian have been characterized by the investigating committee as too insubstantial to warrant serious consideration as adequate cause for dismissal," its statement reads.
A committee of three professors from other universities visited USF in March after the association concluded that the case had "raised issues of academic freedom, tenure and due process that are of basic concern to the academic community and are incumbent on us to address."
Associate general secretary Jordan Kurland said investigators had reported their findings to a standing committee, which agreed that Al-Arian should return to USF. Those findings were presented to the full AAUP membership Saturday.
Genshaft announced her intention to fire Al-Arian after the USF Board of Trustees voted 12-1 in December that his employment be terminated. But Genshaft delayed making her final decision, leading some to speculate that she was having second thoughts.
"I think she believes censure is a foregone conclusion," Al-Arian's lawyer, Robert McKee, said Saturday. "She knows it is out there."
USF spent four years on the AAUP's censure list in the 1960s after then-president John Allen refused to hire a political scientist who had written a book critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.
-- Anita Kumar can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.
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