Cut the Puppet Strings

""The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in time of comfort and convenience ... but where he stands in time of challenge and controversy.' The same is true of great universities."

That was University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at her inauguration — the same Judy Genshaft, in a deposition less than two weeks ago, would not say whether racism violates core values of the university she leads.

What irony. What nerve.

Granted, few new university presidents have two controversies as gigantic as the Sami Al-Arian fiasco and the 12 civil rights lawsuits alleging racism in the women's basketball program drop in their lap so early in their tenure.

Such huge problems.

But, these were beautiful problems — problems that called for strong leadership and vision, problems that would have let Genshaft and USF shine, if she'd only had the backbone and character to stand for what she'd promised at her inauguration when she described the "calling" of the academic life and the responsibility it holds. "Fundamentally, we who choose careers as faculty do so out of a deep and abiding belief in the future," she said. "The drive to discover, to pursue truth, to generate knowledge is rooted in a conviction that we have a role to play in humanity's triumph." Her stewardship has not been a triumph of humanity.

A stack of 12 civil rights suits that keep multiplying and getting larger is not a triumph of humanity.

Depositions showing her refusing seven times to say that racism violates the core values of the university is not a triumph of humanity.

A university president who has not personally checked out — or even delegated an investigation to someone else — whether the allegations of racism are true is not a triumph of humanity.

A university professor being fired be-cause some fear-mongering television blowhard stirs the masses into a panic over unproven allegations that he is a terrorist is not a triumph of humanity.

A university president who doesn't have the guts to stand up to her board of trustees to protect the most fundamental freedoms is no triumph at all. This is not the USF that former president Betty Castor left behind, and it is shocking how quickly Genshaft and Jeb Bush's minion of trustees scorched the earth of the campus. In the nearly 500 local stories in which Genshaft's name has appeared since taking over one and a half years ago, USF has taken a hit almost every time.

USF has been sued for discrimination in the past. Every university has. During Betty Castor's administration, stories of lawsuits packed with painful allegations of gender, race and religious discrimination hit the front page — but then they died. Castor knew when to answer questions and when to shut up. She knew when to buck lawsuits and when to settle. Controversy is inevitable on a university campus, but Castor minimized the damage.

Genshaft, by contrast, always seems to know how to turn a bad situation into a nightmare. A sex discrimination lawsuit seeking class action status threatened USF's entire salary structure came and went in nine months under Castor's leadership. Contrast that with Genshaft's bumbling of the allegations of racism on the women's basketball team. She started with one lawsuit, now there are 12, plus one for public records. The mess has dragged out for one and a half years, with Genshaft firing the coach and athletic director and choosing to pay a fortune to lawyers and perhaps the plaintiffs, rather than admit publicly that USF had people on staff who said and did things that were racist. Genshaft's mess is going to cost us plenty — whether it is in millions of dollars in settlements, judgments or legal fees. I want to admit a few biases here: First, Jonathan Alpert, the attorney who filed the civil rights cases, is someone I know socially. Actually, I got to know him because he files lawsuits like these. Second, I got my undergraduate degree at USF, lived on its Tampa campus and have loved that school since I left it 20 years ago. When Genshaft compromises the core values of my alma mater, she compromises me because I am personally invested in its success.

Many people have speculated about how much the governor and his trustees have influenced her decisions, but I'm not sure whether she is a puppet or a suck-up. I feel certain she can't really believe what she's telling us. She tells us the reason Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian must go is that he didn't tell the TV world that he wasn't speaking on behalf of USF when Fox's Bill O'Reilly skewered him with unproven allegations of connections to terrorist groups. Professors never qualify their remarks like that, and she knows it. When Genshaft was asked again and again, "Are you able to say whether racism is contrary to a core value of the University of South Florida?" she finally offered this: "The University is open to all people and all — all kinds of people and we welcome diversity at the university." How hard would it have been to say, "Yes, racism violates a core value of the university."

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