USF president Judy Genshaft reveals more about her motivations for firing Sami Al-Arian in a Rotary Club speech than she has in formal statements to the press.
By Rochelle Renford
With an AAUP delegation coming to town and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft keeping mum on the pending termination — or not — of tenured computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian, it would seem as though the administration is giving serious weight to the outcry from faculty and academic associations about academic freedom abuses. However, a recent Rotary Club speech and documents obtained by Weekly Planet suggest that Genshaft is doing more spin control than thinking. Genshaft's 20-minute speech to Rotarians was the standard USF booster. It's a great university, it has a growing reputation as a research institution and it has evolved so far from its reputation as Commuter U that it's going to have to build more student housing. Her animated explanations of some of the stellar research projects at USF included arm motions depicting the movements of robots and a shout out to the orthopedics center that helps "crippled" kids.
It was a swell speech. Genshaft invited her audience to ask whatever questions it wanted and, of course, the first one was about Al-Arian. In addressing the situation that has the academic community in an uproar, you'd think that Genshaft would cite the report commissioned by her own university to investigate the doings of Al-Arian. Or perhaps she would try to score points by talking about academic freedom. What she did was recommend Steve Emerson's new book, Terrorists Among Us: Jihad in America as a resource for audience members to better understand her position.
Emerson, who is suing Weekly Planet and former editor John Sugg for libel, has been widely used by the mainstream press as expert on terrorism since Sept. 11. However, before the terrorist attack, he had been discredited for his research and reporting, and upbraided by the nation's most visible media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which stated, "There's more than a little bigotry in Emerson's obsession with Muslim terrorists."
Genshaft may have been showing a little bigotry herself as she took pains to point out that Al-Arian is not a citizen of the United States and said that, while the FBI had not actually charged Al-Arian with anything, it didn't exonerate him either. She didn't say why there would be a need to exonerate someone who hasn't been charged with anything.
The Rotarians exploded with applause when Genshaft positioned the possible firing of Al-Arian as a blow to terrorism.
After the event formally ended, many waited to shake the president's hand and give kudos to her preliminary decision to terminate Al-Arian. Taking a cue from the president's touting of Al-Arian's non-citizen status, a gentleman approached and asked her why any non-citizens should be able to teach at a public university. Genshaft said those immigrants who are happy to be in this country and appreciate its greatness should be allowed to teach. "But not terrorists," she added.
Genshaft thanked the people who said she should fire Al-Arian and nodded her head profusely as they talked. However, while she seemed pleased to accept questions and comments from Rotarians, she refused to answer any questions from Weekly Planet, including one about the findings of USF's own investigation into Al-Arian's activities and the statements by immigration Judge McHugh that refuted the notion of terrorist ties. Genshaft said she needed to speak to all of the waiting Rotarians first.
But when the line died down, she said, "If you want an interview you need to call (USF spokesman) Michael Reich."
At that point, an assistant came to her rescue, saying Genshaft had an appointment and was "needed upstairs." But, upstairs, the only people visible were caterers cleaning up after lunch.
Genshaft has repeatedly insisted that allegations linking Al-Arian to terrorism or his controversial views had nothing to do with his possible firing.
Those statements are in direct conflict with what was specified in the contract used to retain outside council Thomas Gonzalez. That document says Gonzalez was to "provide research for possible liability of terminating a tenured faculty member for public statements made of a controversial nature."
The statements that actually spawned the outpouring of letters and threats that Genshaft claims crippled the university's ability to function were actually made by Bill O'Reilly, the bombastic host of a TV show on which Al-Arian made an appearance.
What Gonzalez actually did was answer the real question that was likely on the minds of USF administrators: How can we get rid of this guy?
When asked about the contradiction between Genshaft's public statements and the specifics of the contract with Gonzalez, Reich says, "There is no discrepancy."
Gonzalez couldn't be reached for comment. However, in his report, Gonzalez seems to address the discrepancy between what he was contracted to do and what he actually did. "I hasten to add, and emphasize, that I offer this opinion with full awareness of the fact that the "conduct' to which I refer above, and which violates the sections of the collective bargaining agreement just quoted, involves speech that is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America," he wrote.
Gonzalez wrote that, although the university asked him to give "an overriding emphasis" to issues of free speech, Al-Arian's right to engage in that free speech in matters of public concern is "unquestionable."
It's good PR for Genshaft to stick with the notion that she's only looking at the safety of the university in her decision to terminate Al-Arian; however, her speech and the administration's contract with Gonzalez may just tell the real story. Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or [email protected].