TAMPA Dr. Sami Al-Arian is a tenured professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida, a stateless Palestinian and a poster child not only for abuses of civil liberties, but the defense of academic freedom since Sept. 11.
On Sept. 26, 2001, Al-Arian was asked by the producers of The O’Reilly Factor to appear on the show and represent the Muslim community to downplay the claims that fundamentalism was as widespread as many Washington pundits were claiming. That genuine request turned out to be a ploy and host Bill O’Reilly immediately accused Al-Arian of having ties to terrorists during a particularly vulnerable time in America. Al-Arian was forced to defend himself, although none of his words were actually inflammatory towards US foreign policy from which he is known to be a detractor.
Al-Arian was immediately put on administrative paid leave by the university after it received hundreds of phone calls and a dozen threats on Al-Arian’s life.
Since November last year Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, has been held in 23-hour solitary confinement and is strip-searched twice a day at Coleman Federal Correctional Facility about 75 miles north of Tampa. Al-Najjar, a former professor at USF, and Al-Arian together founded and worked with World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) and the Islamic Committee of Palestine (ICP), two USF think tanks formed to promote understanding of Islam in the late 80s and early 90s.
Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, a former director for WISE, left in 1995 and resurfaced as the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad causing alarm not only to the government, but to Al-Arian as well who has said he had no idea of Shallah’s intentions.
Al-Najjar also spent 1,307 days in jail on secret evidence from 1997-2000 but, on Oct. 27, 2000 R. Kevin McHugh, an INS judge said after viewing the government’s secret evidence against Al-Najjar, “WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded.”
What also brought attention to Al-Arian was his strong stance against U.S. foreign policy and support for Palestinian’s right to self-determination in the occupied territories. During one of his speeches in 1990, Al-Arian spoke the famous words that have been hanging around his neck like an albatross ever since, and what rightwing pundits and Jewish interest groups here in this conservative town are using as a justification of firing a tenured professor; “Death to Israel.”
In December last year, the university’s Board of Trustees (a group of conservative businessmen hand-picked by Gov. Jeb Bush) called for an emergency meeting to discuss Al-Arian, who was still on paid leave due to his appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. The meeting turned out to be a one-sided slander session as the board recommended to Judy Genshaft, the bumbling saccharine president of USF, that Al-Arian be fired.
The board did not give a 24-hour notice of the meeting, which is guaranteed by the Sunshine Laws in Florida and also did not allow Al-Arian to defend himself. Not to mention the meeting was called during the winter break when many of Al-Arian’s supporters, both professors and students, were not in Tampa.
These sneaky and unjustifiable offenses did not bode well in the academic community and therefore, Genshaft and the board were made to answer accusations they circumvented academic freedom, freedom of speech and the right of due process since Al-Arian, who has been banned from campus since September, could not defend himself at the meeting.
Genshaft and the board’s arguments to fire cited the disruption Al-Arian brings to the university because of the death threats on him and the fact that, as Genshaft mentioned, donors to USF were withholding funds until Al-Arian was fired.
“Free speech is much more important than donations to a university,” said Dr. Nancy Jane Tyson, last year’s faculty senate president. “The protection of opinion and right to speak out is priceless. No cost value can be put on that.”
Caving into death threats from what one would suppose were American terrorists and deciding the fate of a tenured professor because financial contributors to USF wanted him out didn’t hold water in academic circles.
In January, both the USF Faculty Senate and the statewide Faculty Union stood behind Al-Arian and pledged attorneys in his defense. The ACLU and the American Arab anti Discrimination Committee also threw their support his way.
The issue has split the USF campus as well. Many protests against the administration’s intent to fire have created strong and enlightened friendships of black, white, Hispanic and Arabic students as well as professors. They argue that even though they and many academics in Al-Arian’s defense do not necessarily agree with his beliefs, the freedom to speak should not be curtailed because of hyper-patriotism since Sept. 11.
On Feb. 20, the two sides met and squared off against each other as tempers peaked. Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, organized a demonstration in support of President Genshaft’s intent to fire. The counter-protesters, against the firing, produced twice as many detractors with signs, chants and bullhorns proclaiming that academic freedom and free speech cannot and will not be bulldozed.
The Coalition of Progressive Student Organizations (15 campus groups) the Graduate Assistants United and many other campus faculty and student groups all sent out memos condemning Genshaft’s intent to fire and Dr. Elizabeth Bird, the board’s liaison, resigned due to the lack of due process afforded Al-Arian.
Strangely, the Student Government, made up mostly of Republican and Jewish students, voted 22-0 in favor of Genshaft who gave a speech to the Student Government immediately before the vote. Still, 14 of the 36 members abstained because they felt the student body had not been properly polled. Students were outraged that the Student Government, supposedly representing student opinion, would vote unanimously to support Genshaft’s intent to fire even after hundreds had signed letters in opposition.
On March 15, the American Association of University Professors came to town to discuss a possible censure on the university if it decides to fire the tenured professor. The threat of academic censure has halted the administration’s decision to fire. USF has already been censured once in the early 1960s during the John’s Committees that lobbied to fire supposed communist and gay/lesbian professors in Florida. Only a few universities have ever been censured more than once and there have only been 51 total censures ever.
An AAUP censure on a university discourages many of the most competitive and qualified professors from becoming faculty members. Showing concern at the administration’s behavior, the AAUP has stepped forward even before a professor has been fired, the first time that has ever occurred.
There have also been hints that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is to conduct an inquiry as to the possibility of racism behind the firing. President Genshaft is Jewish and the dean of Al-Arian’s department at USF is said to have been an Israeli soldier.
Genshaft has put all of her eggs in one basket, hoping the government will indict Al-Arian. She has supported speakers such as the inflammatory NBC terrorist expert Steven Emerson.
After all is said and done, many academics at USF and beyond have forecasted that the only person that is going to lose their job is President Genshaft. In an age where the job of a university president isn’t so much about academe as it is about raising money, Genshaft has provided the blueprint on how presidents should not treat a faculty member whose beliefs run contrary to that of the administration.
Most recently though, on March 20, John Loftus, a former Nazi hunter and current president of the Florida Holocaust Museum, filed a lawsuit that once again claims Al-Arian’s groups WISE and ICP raised funds for terrorist organizations. During the same day, a slanderous federal warrant naming Al-Arian alongside Osama Bin Laden raided 14 Virginia Islamic organizations that supposedly raised money for terrorists.
Loftus, whose reputation has often been questioned, has once again shown his true colors when he sent donations to Al-Arian that were intended for the two long-defunct organizations (WISE and ICP) a few days after he filed the lawsuit. The reasoning behind the donations (in one of Loftus’ donations he sent two-dollar bills) is that he had to have been personally defrauded to file a legal complaint against Al-Arian.
The obvious and comical tactics by Loftus mirrors that of president Genshaft, the board of trustees and local Jewish interest and is all too symbolic. Every angle has been manipulated in order to rid the Palestinian, yet, he remains at home with his family receiving a $66,000 salary.
“What bothers me the most is the hypocrisy behind the administration.” Dr. Tyson said.
One board member, Rhea F. Law even tried to argue that because Al-Arian is on paid leave, which the board and president decided to put him on after the O’Reilly interview, he should be fired because he is unable to perform his duties as a professor.
For the most part, the faculty has been silenced and the words of Dr. Tyson have been too few and far-between. Seeing a tenured professor come under such scrutiny has been intimidating, and many professors have said in private that they are not willing to speak out for fear of administrative reprisals.
“It’s an insecure feeling,” Dr. Tyson said.
Alex Lynch is Founder and Editor of THE SHANACHIE Alternative Campus Newspaper at the University of South Florida and can be contacted at email@example.com. To read more about the Al-Arian family by Alex Lynch go to: https://www.counterpunch.org/lynchnahla.html. Or, contact the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace at: firstname.lastname@example.org.