Death threats, freedom and a big PR black eye. This is a tough one for the University of South Florida. On one hand there's Dr. Sami Al-Arian, who says he should not have been forced onto paid leave following his appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, where the host suggested he might have ties to terrorists. In spite of the show's tenor, both the FBI and USF have conducted full investigations and found that such is not the case.
On the other hand, those investigations are beside the point to the more than 1,000 people who e-mailed the university after Al-Arian's TV appearance. The e-mails range from vitriolic to thoughtful, and some were downright evil, threatening the life of Al-Arian and calling USF President Judy Genshaft names unfit to print.
What's a university leader to do?
What Genshaft did was issue another memo concerning her decision to place Al-Arian on leave. Unlike her initial missive, it actually mentioned concerns for Al-Arian's safety and his right to academic freedom. Her statement also discusses the responses the university has gotten both to Al-Arian's television appearance and to Genshaft's decision to place him on paid leave. "We are receiving many telephone calls and e-mails expressing support for my position, anger, calls for the firing of Dr. Al-Arian and concerns for the image of the university," she wrote.
Although Genshaft did not reveal as much, the university received correspondence from faculty and community members supporting Al-Arian and criticizing her. In fact, her latest memo might have been written as a result of a meeting with the faculty union, which was dismayed that her first comments didn't deal with the issues of academic freedom.
"I expressed frankly the concern that several faculty members had that there was some evidence that this was a case of blaming the victim," says union officer Roy Weatherford. He added that the union will meet with Genshaft on Thursday so that other members will have a chance to outline their concerns and Genshaft will have a chance to respond. Genshaft was unavailable for comment.
So far, says Weatherford, the university has not violated Al-Arian's contract. However, if his forced leave turns out to be a matter of academic freedom rather than safety, there could be a problem.
According to Harry Vanden, a member of the faculty senate who's an expert on terrorism, professors should feel free to express their views and to know that the university will stand behind them.
He equates giving in to pressure with giving in to terrorism: "Terrorists want you to overreact; they want you to fight among yourselves and to stop doing what you do. Most of all, it is the job of the university to go on teaching and not be intimidated. That's what courage and conviction are about. What we need to do is have Dr. Al-Arian back in the classroom and not make a big deal about it."
Interdisciplinary professor William Cummings is disappointed that the university administration's initial reaction to the controversy was to run. "Had it shown a little more backbone I wonder if the threats and the safety issues would have been as serious," he says.
Al-Arian says that he has still not spoken directly to Genshaft and that a dean delivered the news of his leave after the decision had already been made. "Again, they said I'm not under investigation, I'm not being disciplined, I'm not being under probation in any way shape or form," says Al-Arian.
His greatest concern, though, is not for himself but for his students. It's the middle of the semester and he knows how difficult it can be to get professors to pick up his courses.
Alan Sear, a professor in the College of Public Health, shares Genshaft's concern for the image of the university. He doesn't entirely agree with her position though. "I don't know if he should have even been at the university to be placed on leave," he says.
Sear has several concerns, including questions about Al-Arian's involvement in WISE (World and Islamic Studies Enteprise), the FBI's investigation and the attitudes of some of his colleagues. Unlike some others on campus, Sear does not believe that academic freedom means professors can just say anything. While Sear does not feel that his safety is in jeopardy if Al-Arian is on campus, he believes that Genshaft has a responsibility to protect the image of the university. "As a faculty member and just as a citizen it doesn't look good," he says. According to Weatherford, the fundamental value of a university is not safety and security; it's truth. At a time when the community is clamoring for all three, looking good may be a thing of the past.