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USF keeps its distance

By KEVIN GRAHAM and MELANIE AVE
Published December 6, 2005

TAMPA - Sami Al-Arian's acquittal on eight of 17 charges does not mean the former computer science professor will get his job back, University of South Florida officials said Tuesday.

"The University of South is watching the recent legal developments. USF ended Sami Al-Arian's employment nearly three years ago, and we don't expect anything to change that," the university said a prepared statement.

USF President Judy Genshaft was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. She flew to India on Friday to look into establishing a USF medical school there. University officials refused to answer any questions.

Faculty members and students who have followed the Al-Arian saga had mixed reactions.

Harry E. Vanden, a USF political science professor, was an outspoken opponent to the way Genshaft fired Al-Arian. He said Tuesday's verdict "puts the university in a somewhat difficult position" and that USF isn't completely out of the spotlight.

"The university has fired a professor that has not been found guilty by a court of law," Vanden said. "If indeed his rights were violated, the question isn't whether there's going to be a lawsuit or whether he's going to be reinstated, but what will be the magnitude of the suit and whether the university will settle."

Genshaft fired Al-Arian in February 2003 by sending him a letter, one week after federal agents arrested the tenured professor. Al-Arian had worked at the university for 16 years.

USF said at the time it was firing Al-Arian for violating his contract.

The university claimed he engaged in activities outside the course and scope of his employment that harmed the university, and that he failed to properly report those activities to university officials.

The school said Al-Arian used USF as a cover to bring faculty and students into the country for terrorist meetings under the guise of an academic conference.

The university's reputation suffered because of USF's ties to Al-Arian, Genshaft said. Some Al-Arian critics called USF "Jihad U." Genshaft said she planned to fire him whether or not he was indicted.

Roy Weatherford, who was president of the USF faculty union when Al-Arian was fired, said the verdict wasn't as important to him as the fight that ensued for Al-Arian to keep his job.

"What was important to us was to guarantee that no faculty member be fired because somebody thinks they're guilty of something," Weatherford said. "In the very beginning, the university over-reacted and decided that they would rather fire someone without due process, and that's all we've ever been opposing."

The USF faculty union stood behind Al-Arian. Weatherford said a complete investigation and ruling by the federal courts should have taken place before Al-Arian lost his job.

In the federal courtroom Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Moody declared a mistrial on the charges in which the jury could not reach a verdict.

Prosecutors have not said whether they intend to retry Al-Arian on those charges.

Weatherford said he isn't sure what would have to happen for Al-Arian to get his $67,500-a-year job back - if he's eventually retried and found not guilty on the remaining charges.

Former University of South Florida adjunct professor Arthur Lowrie said he was surprised by the verdicts.

"I thought on balance he'd be convicted because of the attitudes and feelings in the country" about Muslims and terrorists, he said. "This jury must have really studied this very carefully and overcome any preconceived ideas they might have had."

Lowrie, 75, strongly supported Al-Arian for more than a decade, until he read the government's indictment, which notes dozens of alleged conversations about membership in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

But to USF professors, Lowrie said Al-Arian repeatedly denied any connection with the PIJ.

Lowrie was a member of the university's Committee on Middle Eastern Studies, which was dissolved largely because of its connection to Al-Arian.

Lowrie is also a retired Foreign Service officer who once served as Mideast adviser to the commander at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

"From a personal point of view, I feel he deceived me and my colleagues at the university," Lowrie said. "He hurt our credibility. We defended him for sometime. He hurt the university. For those reasons, I no longer wanted anything to do with him, nor do I now."

At the USF Tampa campus Tuesday, with final exams starting next week, it was easier to find students who were interested in chemistry rather than the Al-Arian verdict.

Students with the greatest interest - most of them Muslim - went to the federal courthouse to watch Moody read the verdict from a closed-circuit television in a room set aside for those who could not get seats in the courtroom.

Among them was Lilah Salhab, 22, a recent USF graduate and friend to the families of Al-Arian and his three co-defendants.

"This is like a dream come true," said Salhab, as Muslim supporters of Al-Arian around her shouted, "We love America!"

"For the past God knows how long, we've been praying for this," she said.

Diana Mitwalli, 19, a psychology major and also a friend of the Al-Arian family, chanted and hugged crying friends on the courthouse steps after hearing the verdict.

"We're just happy," she said. "We knew they were innocent all along. We just needed to hear it from the American system."

- Times staffers Cathy Wos and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 21:46:02]


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