The Al-Arian Factor

click to enlarge ABSENCE MINDED: USF professor Sami Al-Arian was placed on - paid leave after appearing on The O'Reilly Factor and is now barred - from campus - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
ABSENCE MINDED: USF professor Sami Al-Arian was placed on paid leave after appearing on The O'Reilly Factor and is now barred from campus

Nearly three weeks after computer engineering professor Sami Al-Arian's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, faculty and administrative leaders at the University of South Florida are still dealing with the fallout. Al-Arian was placed on paid leave immediately after the show aired and last week he was barred from the campus. USF President Judy Genshaft said the measures were taken due to safety issues that arose when his television appearance resulted in angry e-mails and death threats. However, in spite of her words, some are looking at her actions and crying foul. Last week the president met with both the executive board of the faculty senate and with faculty union representatives to discuss the issue of academic freedom. Members of both groups questioned whether being placed on leave has violated Al-Arian's rights. In the end, both groups declined to take action in support of Al-Arian, but the suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the administration still lingers.

Academic freedom is a term that most people equate with free speech, says union president Roy Weatherford, but that perception is not really accurate. "Constitutionally protected speech is not constitutionally protected employment, but academic freedom is."

Academic freedom not only protects professors' rights to speak his or her mind; it prevents a university from taking disciplinary action if the views they express are unpopular. Because of the extraordinary circumstances the country has found itself in, the union accepts Genshaft's view that placing Al-Arian on leave is strictly about safety, says Weatherford. However, the union will note how long he's kept off the campus and the actions that the administration is taking to ensure his safe return. "There has not been a gross violation of academic freedom and there won't be as long as we're involved."

But does Genshaft's assertion that she's thinking only of safety — which would protect her from violating Al-Arian's union contract — ring true? Genshaft speaks of safety and in the next breath speaks of protecting the reputation of the university. "The number of alumni and the number of people that are concerned about the university being cast in a light that is not as favorable as it had been, yes we're all worried about it," she says.

She has also said repeatedly that Al-Arian does not represent the university and that she does not believe he did enough to make that clear on the show. She's threatened to take the strongest possible action if he goes on television again. "He can go on whatever shows he wants; he can say whatever he wants to say. But when it becomes ... a heightened security risk then we have to take measures here."

But of course it's not Al-Arian's mere appearance on television that angered people in the first place, it's what he said. That's where the issue of academic freedom kicks in. "I don't think that expressing an opinion and being identified as a professor at the university is grounds for action," says Weatherford.

"Her threat, and I think it can be characterized as a threat, of taking serious action in the future, I meet with a counter-threat. If professor Al-Arian continues with the same conduct in the future — and that threat of disciplinary action based on the premise that faculty must always be issuing constant disclaimers — is carried out, then her serious action will be met with a serious defense on the part of the union."

While indeed safety is a real concern, it can be addressed in more effective ways, says professor Harry Vanden. "I think the members of this university must stand together, stand solid and resist those who would hinder us or slander any of us," Vanden says. "I think that is why people would hope that we would reconsider placing Dr. Al-Arian on leave." He adds that other institutions facing similar threats have found ways to ensure safety without violating rights.

Vanden didn't get a lot of support for his position. While some at the faculty senate meeting continued to grapple with the balance between safety and academic freedom, it was clear that others could not separate those two issues from Al-Arian's opinions. Religious studies professor Sara Mandel agreed with the president's actions. She also agreed with Genshaft's view that Al-Arian did not do enough to distance himself from the university while on The O'Reilly Factor. It was, however, his viewpoint that she addressed.

"I sat and I listened to (him) and chills went down my spine," Mandel said at the faculty senate meeting.

"And when he finished with "Death to Israel,'" she said with emotion, "I was angry and I can appreciate the threats and so forth. Not because Israel is a Jewish state but because it's our only friend in the Middle East. I can appreciate middle America, because middle America does listen to O'Reilly, academics may not, but middle America does and that's the heart of this country and I can picture threats coming."

Al-Arian did not end the O'Reilly appearance with a cry of, "Death to Israel," and with U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War, it's debatable whether Israel is actually the United States' only friend in the Middle East. However, Mandel's comments make it clear that it's hard to isolate the issue of Al-Arian's right to academic freedom from his pro-Palestinian views.

Genshaft says others have received death threats, but they have not gotten the Al-Arian treatment. "Well, I haven't put them on paid leave but they, they are, it's a group it's more a, it's more generic kinds of things, but there is a lot of heightened security around here."

Not really.

According to campus police spokesman Sgt. Mike Klingebiel, USF has been in a state of heightened security since the attacks on Sept. 11. The police force went on 12-hour shifts following the attacks, then went back to their normal schedule shortly after. With military troops being called up, the department lost some people and has since gone back to 12-hour shifts — due to staffing issues, not due to the threats on Al-Arian.

Because Al-Arian has been removed from campus, no additional measures need to be taken, says Klingebiel. "Not having him there does not require us to modify what we are doing; having him here would require us to modify what we have been doing."

Having the professor on campus would likely require extra manpower and additional training, says Klingebiel, as well as other security precautions he could not discuss. Campus police haven't taken precautions that would allow Al-Arian to return to campus safely, and no one has asked them to do so, says Klingebiel.

Are they capable of protecting Al-Arian? "That's a very large question," says Klingebiel. "Currently, the way we assessed safety here on campus we probably would not be capable of ensuring his safety here on campus, given the climate that we're in."

Al-Arian basically got sucked up in the atmosphere of the war on terrorism, says Klingebiel. "We continue to assess the viability (of the threat) and believe the viability of the threat is still there, based on the nature of the threats, the world climate and the high profile of Dr. Al-Arian."

The "world climate" right now makes it unsafe for Al-Arian to express any pro-Palestinian views. It makes it even more unsafe that he's a Palestinian expressing those views. Does this mean that he'll be on leave until there's peace in the Middle East? "Perhaps," says Klingebiel, "There's no deadline; this is a day by day assessment."

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