Palestinian professor railroaded in South Florida campus witchhunt
Free speech on campus in Florida is a thing of the past.
A tenured professor of computer science, well-rated by his students, was fired from the University of South Florida (USF) in December through a blatantly rigged process endorsed by Gov. Jeb! Bush. Few teachers in the state can have missed the new narrowing of the official lines of academic correctness.
Dr. Sami Al-Arian's role as a political lightning rod goes back to 1996, when his brother-in-law, Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, was charged with heading a "terrorist front" organization and imprisoned for three and a half years on the basis of "secret evidence." Al-Najjar, a former USF adjunct professor and father of three, was eventually released when one judge ruled that holding him without presenting evidence was unconstitutional. Another found that his World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a USF think tank, was a "reputable and scholarly research center."
WISE has been defunct since its assets were frozen after an FBI raid in 1995, though apparently no one was charged with any crimes.
The persecution of Al-Najjar continues-he now faces deportation--but it also brought Al-Arian, a former head of WISE, into the news as an advocate for his brother-in-law's rights, an opponent of the government's use of secret evidence against immigrants, and a spokesman for Moslems and Arabs in the Tampa area. This led to a late-September appearance on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, during which host Bill O'Reilly badgered Al-Arian with accusations of fronting for terrorists because some of his past associates had later become involved with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, and because of provocative anti-Israel statements made during the '80s.
Though Al-Arian pointed out that WISE had undergone many years of FBI investigation without any charges being filed, O'Reilly's hostile and accusatory remarks (along with attacks from other right-wing media personalities) led many to believe that Al-Arian is a terrorist agent. The phones at USF started ringing, with death threats, bomb hoaxes, and ultimata that the professor be fired or alumni would stop donating.
"For his own protection," Al-Arian, 44, was suspended from teaching and barred from campus three days later. On the morning of December 18, USF's 12-member board of trustees held a special meeting on his case, at which only they, USF Pres. Judy Genshaft, university lawyers and the chief of campus police were allowed to speak. Timed so that most students and faculty were away for the holidays, and minimally publicized through a 4 pm announcement on a poorly subscribed online listserv on the day before (violating the Sunshine Law's requirement of 24-hour notice for even "emergency" meetings), the gathering was standing-room-only in a 50-seat chamber.
As at the University of Florida, USF's trustees are all Jeb! Bush appointees; only one has any background in university life, and most are big-league Republican contributors. Being banned from the campus, where the meeting was held, Al-Arian could not attend to defend himself. The discussion, as reported in Bill Berkowitz's 12/21/01 column at www.workingforchange.com, veered from Orwellian to Kafkaesque.
The campus police explained that they lacked the resources to counter sustained threats and could not provide a safe environment if Al-Arian were to return to campus (even though no threats had been received for six weeks). A trustee complained that Al-Arian was not performing his classroom duties, leaving them with no choice but to fire him. Others complained that USF's fund-raising programs had been adversely affected. Only former US Senator Connie Mack questioned the justice of punishing a professor due to criminal threats made by others, but in the end he also voted for termination.
USF Pres. Genshaft had the nominal final say, and the next day her ax fell. She gave four reasons for her stated intention to dismiss Prof. Al-Arian:
If Al-Arian's attorney was present, he did not speak; nor were any faculty members or their union representatives given a chance to debate the issues or dubious statements of fact presented. Only the trustees had that privilege.
It's worth noting a few of the items not discussed by the trustees, including Al-Arian's teaching record (highly praised), the possibility of setting up remote "tele-teaching" facilities so that he might continue interacting with his classes from a remote location, the inadequate effort made to identify those threatening the professor as compared to the feverish pursuit of other real and alleged terrorists, or the basic concepts of academic freedom.
"Our academic freedom to speak to the community arises from the public's right of access to current knowledge," stated several members of the USF Chapter of the United Faculty of Florida. "Especially in a democracy, the public has the right - and often the need - to know. ... A university must be a place where honest debate is not suppressed in fear and anger, or stifled by parochial interests. ... it is honest counsel, not dishonest comfort, that the public needs most."
That the trustees of USF should disregard such time-honored traditions should not be surprising, considering both their individual backgrounds and the opportunistic coup by which Jeb! Bush abolished the Board of Regents and gave the trustees their positions. This "restructuring" was guided in part by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a conservative group in Washington, DC, founded by Senator Joseph Lieberman and vice-presidential wife Lynne Cheney.
ACTA has most recently gained publicity by denouncing academics who've criticized the knee-jerk war-mongering that followed Sept. 11's terrorist attacks as "the weak link in America's response." Beyond that, it has conducted a crusade against affirmative action, multi-culturalism, "political correctness", and an alleged pattern of conservative faculty being suppressed by tenured leftists. Though operating on an annual budget of around $500,000 (largely from right-wing foundations), ACTA claims its members gave $3.4 billion to US colleges and universities last year, and it works to maximize the rightward political leverage from that money.
Silencing dissidents such as Al-Arian may be only the harbinger of the policy changes which Cheney, Lieberman, and their funders intend to impose on American campuses. If the once-powerful status of tenure becomes no more secure than a campaign promise, the enemies of independent thinking within the US will have struck a more lasting blow than the hijackers of September 11th.
Ironically, Al-Arian's earlier campaign against the government's secret evidence laws had won the vocal support of candidate George W. Bush in 2000. Al-Arian had publicly worked for Bush's election; his son Abdullah had been invited to a White House meeting with other Moslem representatives in June of 2001 on that basis, to be suddenly ejected by Secret Service agents due to what was later called an "erroneous tip" that he had terrorist connections.
A further irony: even Bill O'Reilly has declared that USF should not have fired Al-Arian "without a complete investigation." He also suggested that "this could be a case of a cowardly administration at the University of South Florida just taking the easy way out," and that Genshaft herself should resign.
On January 14, Al-Arian announced he will seek binding arbitration to challenge his dismissal. Genshaft now says she is reviewing her options, but set no time for making a final decision.
To urge Pres. Genshaft to reinstate Dr. Al-Arian and place principles above political hysteria, contact her at:
President Judy Genshaft
University of South Florida
Office of the President
4202 E. Fowler Ave.
Tampa, FL 33620
(813) 974-5530 (fax)
Gainesville's Community Coalition Against War and Terrorism is planning a teach-in on the new threats to academic freedom for both faculty and students. Contact CCAWT at email@example.com or www.civicmediacenter.org/ccawt, or attend the Monday night meetings at 7 pm in the Mennonite Fellowship Hall at 1320 W. University Ave, for more information or to join the Coalition's efforts.
This article was written from a variety of online sources.
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