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USF will fire Al-Arian

USF's president ties the firing to breach of contract and insubordination, not academic freedom.

By BARRY KLEIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001

USF's president ties the firing to breach of contract and insubordination, not academic freedom.

TAMPA -- University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft said Wednesday she will move immediately to fire suspended professor Sami Al-Arian, a controversial figure whom federal authorities have linked to terrorists.

Genshaft said the firing, a rarity in higher education, has nothing to do with academic freedom because Al-Arian's public comments were unrelated to his academic specialty of computer engineering. She said her decision was based on insubordination and breach of contract.

Al-Arian violated his employment contract by failing to make clear that remarks made in off-campus speeches reflected personal views and not those of the university, Genshaft said. He violated an agreement with USF administrators by returning to campus after being put on paid leave, she said.

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

"The Constitution guarantees his right to speech, but it doesn't insulate him from the consequences of that speech," Genshaft said. "With academic freedom and freedom of speech comes academic responsibility and duty. He has not fulfilled his obligations or duties."

Genshaft made her decision several hours after USF's board of trustees met in an emergency session and recommended Al-Arian's firing.

An attorney hired by the university to assess its legal options told board members they had ample grounds to fire the professor.

"The university is under no obligation to ignore Dr. Al-Arian's disregard for the university's policies and the lawful directives of its administrators," said Thomas Gonzalez, a Tampa lawyer.

He said Al-Arian's continued employment compromises campus security and disrupts the university's orderly operation. It also alienates alumni and damages fundraising, he said.

"Corporate donors report pressure from peers and clients to curtail involvement with the university," Gonzalez said. "Direct mail solicitation have been returned with angry and negative comments."

That was enough for most of the trustees, who voted 12-1 to recommend his immediate dismissal. The faculty union said it may not have grounds to fight the decision.

"This is not about academic freedom. It's about what he has done to the university," said board chairman Dick Beard.

"I have been called unpatriotic because of this professor's actions," said trustee Gus Stavros, who lost the use of his left hand when he was wounded in World War II. "This university has been hurt badly. It is important that it do the right thing."

Trustee Patrick Swygert, the president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the board's only academic, cast the lone dissenting vote. He proposed that Al-Arian be suspended without pay.

Al-Arian, a tenured professor, earns $66,175 annually.

Former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack also had reservations. What if another, less controversial, professor said something that was completely unacceptable to the community?

"Would we not find some way to protect that individual?" Mack asked.

The question was never answered. And in the end, Mack also voted for termination.

Al-Arian has been sent a letter notifying him of Genshaft's decision. He could not attend Wednesday's meeting because he is barred from setting foot on campus.

Al-Arian did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment. He has 10 days to respond to Genshaft's action. He also has the right to have an independent arbitrator review his dismissal and to take the university to court in a lawsuit.

USF's faculty union chapter could file a grievance on Al-Arian's behalf if it thinks Genshaft's decision violates the university's collective bargaining agreement. But that is by no means certain.

"At the moment, I don't see any obvious grounds for filing," chapter president Roy Weatherford said.

That doesn't mean he thinks the university's treatment of Al-Arian is appropriate. If academic freedom wasn't broken Wednesday, it was at least bent, Weatherford said.

"The purpose of academic freedom is to see that faculty are not punished for the content of their ideas," he said. "The real harm to the university was not done by Professor Al-Arian, but by the right-wing yahoos who threatened the professor's life."

Genshaft's action was highly unusual. In a normal year, about 50 tenured professors are fired nationwide, according to the American Association of University professors.

Al-Arian has denied supporting terrorism and has condemned the Sept. 11 attacks. But he has been a controversial figure for the past 15 years, speaking often in support of Palestinians who are fighting what they consider to be Israeli occupation.

"Victory to Islam. Death to Israel," he said in a speech he gave more than a decade ago.

Al-Arian was born in Kuwait and educated in Egypt. He moved to North Carolina in 1975 where he earned a doctorate in engineering. He came to USF in 1986.

A few years later, Al-Arian helped found the World and Islam Studies Enterprises, an Islamic think tank that was based at USF until 1995, when it was raided by the FBI.

While he has never been detained or charged with a crime, Al-Arian was a focus of a federal investigation in the mid 1990s, when agents suspected his think tank was a front for Middle Eastern terrorists.

A former head of the organization, Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, left it in 1995. He resurfaced soon after as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization.

Al-Arian's brother-in-law is Mazen Al-Najjar of Tampa, who was jailed for 31/2 years on secret evidence alleging membership in Islamic Jihad. Al-Najjar was freed last year when a judge ruled the evidence was not sufficient to continue holding him.

But he was arrested again in November for overstaying his visa. He is now being held in maximum security at a federal prison.

Federal officials would not say Wednesday whether Al-Arian is under any kind of investigation.

Several leaders in the local Muslim community said they think he is being treated unfairly.

"He has never been charged with anything. It's just accusations," said Noor Salhab, a member of Islamic Community of Tampa.

Imran Ismail, a leader in the Muslim Student Association at USF, said he doesn't think it is a coincidence that Wednesday's meeting was held after finals week, when most students were gone.

"We would have had 100 students at the meeting in protest," Ismail said. After Al-Arian was placed on paid leave, he said many students were going to demonstrate but Al-Arian told them to calm down.

"A lot of students -- Muslims and non-Muslims -- feel that he has been treated unfairly," he said.

On his show Wednesday night, Bill O'Reilly criticized Genshaft's decision to fire Al-Arian, calling it "cowardly." Although he said in September that federal agents should follow Al-Arian wherever he goes, O'Reilly said he did not think the professor's alleged terrorist ties were grounds for dismissal.

-- Times staff writers Babita Persaud and Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.

USF's case against Al-Arian

The university has received so many threats involving Al-Arian that it cannot guarantee his safety or that of students, faculty and staff.

He violated his employment contract by failing to make clear that remarks made in off-campus speeches reflected personal views and not those of the university.

He violated an agreement with USF administrators by returning to campus after being put on paid leave.

Fundraising, student recruitment and faculty grants have been hurt by the controversy surrounding his continued employment.

The ongoing security concerns make it impossible for him to fulfill his teaching obligations.

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