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USF rebuke falls short of censure

Higher education group sends a "strong message" as it condemns the university over Sami Al-Arian.

Published June 15, 2003

WASHINGTON - An influential higher education group condemned the University of South Florida on Saturday for its treatment of Sami Al-Arian, but stopped short of a formal censure, its strongest sanction.

Many members of the American Association of University Professors argued for censure, saying USF's firing of Al-Arian shortly after he was indicted this year on terrorism charges violated his rights as a tenured professor.

But the recommendation before the 300 professors at the meeting allowed only for condemnation - a lesser penalty. That was approved, along with a highly unusual request to send the case back to an investigating committee for a possible censure vote next year.

"Nobody who loves USF can be happy today," said USF faculty union president Roy Weatherford, who attended the meeting but did not vote. "You cannot mistake the fact that this body wished to send a strong message."

This is believed to be the first time any university has been condemned by the AAUP, which helped write many of the principles that govern academic freedom.

USF president Judy Genshaft, who did not attend the meeting, said she was mystified by the group's actions.

"The AAUP was correct not to censure USF," Genshaft said in a statement. "However, I cannot fathom how the AAUP can look at the same set of facts we looked at and come to the conclusion to condemn us for terminating Dr. Al-Arian."

Three USF professors attended the meeting. One voted for condemnation. The other two abstained.

Al-Arian's labor attorney, Robert McKee, praised the AAUP's action, but said he hopes for censure next year.

"I'm very happy for what we got but I'm disappointed because censure wasn't approved," he said. "It's still a black cloud hanging over the university for another year."

The impact of censure - similar to a public reprimand in the world of higher education - is difficult to measure. But it is thought to have a detrimental effect on the hiring and retention of quality faculty. It also can affect membership in honor societies such as Phi Beta Kappa.

Condemnation, which is less serious, is not expected to have a significant effect beyond the initial rush of negative publicity.

USF was the only school in the United States under threat of censure this year. If it happens next year, USF will become one of only 10 universities ever to be censured twice.

The first time was in 1964, when then-President John Allen refused to hire a political science professor who had written a book critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

Most cases heard by the AAUP generate little discussion. But the Al-Arian matter prompted a 90-minute debate, with dozens of professors standing in line to speak.

Many spoke in favor of censure, saying anything less would be unprecedented and inappropriate. Their comments drew applause from the audience.

"The main issue here is the right of the professor to say what he believes when everyone else disagrees with him," said Jane Elsa, a professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia. "If we can't censure for that, what can we censure for?"

"We have a gold standard. We impose censure," said Carol Simpson Stern, a Northwestern University professor and former AAUP president. "Censure is our cardinal tool - not lighter things, not condemnation."

USF's problems with the AAUP began a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Al-Arian appeared on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor.

The show's report on his alleged ties to terrorists generated angry phone calls and several death threats, including one against Al-Arian that prompted administrators to close the computer science department where he taught.

Citing safety concerns, Genshaft placed Al-Arian, 45, on paid leave and banned him from campus. She fired him 15 months later, after federal agents arrested him on charges that he was the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that has killed dozens of people in the past decade.

Genshaft said Al-Arian's alleged activities were harming the school and interfering with his job, which violated his employment contract.

USF officials, who were not present at Saturday's meeting, had asked the AAUP to hold off on its censure vote until Al-Arian's case is concluded.

"The criminal courts still have their job to do, but USF has found Dr. Al-Arian used his university position to support terrorism," Genshaft said in her statement. "Criminal or not, that's solid ground for termination. Terminating Dr. Al-Arian was the right decision at the right time for the right reasons."

But some AAUP members said there were problems with censuring USF that went beyond the investigating committee's failure to recommend that action.

Censured schools are asked to rectify their problems, but few AAUP members could suggest what USF could do to fix the Al-Arian situation while he was in jail, unable to come back to work or appeal his dismissal.

And Genshaft, some members said, already has committed to establishing new school policies, such as allowing a hearing in front of faculty peers before a dismissal.

"This is a hard case," said Jeffrey Halpern, a Rider University professor who sits on the committee and argued for condemnation. "What I ask is we do an extraordinary thing in an extraordinary case."

What it means

The American Association of University Professors' vote Saturday to condemn the University of South Florida is less serious than the group's usual practice of censure. While censure is said to have a detrimental effect on the hiring and retention of quality faculty, condemnation is not expected to have any significant effect beyond the initial rush of negative publicity. The AAUP says USF may be the first school ever to be formally condemned.

[Last modified June 15, 2003, 01:08:15]

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