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Witchhunt in South Florida 


Pro-Palestinian professor is first casualty of post-9/11 conservative correctness


by Bill Berkovitz

Work for Change, 21 December 2001

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,  13 December 2001

A Florida University professor has become the first post-September 11, academic casualty of the war against terrorism. Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a tenured professor of computer sciences at the University of South Florida (USF), had been under fire since his late-September appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," the Fox News Channel's nightly talkfest. In his fevered rush to tie Professor Al-Arian to terrorists, host Bill O'Reilly engaged in a shameful McCarthyite exercise of guilt by association. Although Dr. Al-Arian has continually denied being involved with terrorist organizations -- he had been investigated by the FBI and had never been arrested or charged with a crime -- reaction to the O'Reilly interview came fast and furious. Professor Al-Arian received death threats and was quickly suspended, with pay, by university President Judy Genshaft. It's been almost three months and now the efforts of O'Reilly and several conservative columnists, most notably Debbie Schlussel, have paid off. According to Vickie Chachere's Associated Press report, "University of South Florida's trustees agreed [that] a Palestinian professor linked to known terrorists should be fired for disrupting university operations." (For more on the Al-Arian appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor", see "Factoring in news bias: FOX's Bill O'Reilly's personal witch-hunt" and "The FOX and the red herring: 'The O'Reilly Factor' hits rock bottom.

As noted in the AP story, the recommendation came from the 12-member Board of Trustees. Last summer, the management of each of the campuses in Florida's state's university system was handed over to 12-member Boards of Trustees, replacing the state's Board of Regents. The Boards, appointed by Florida Governor Jeb Bush despite protests from many academics and others concerned with the independence of the university system, are now running the university system.

Firing Dr. Al-Arian

On December 18, Board Chairman Richard A. Beard, III called an Emergency Meeting of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees "for an end-of-semester review of the situation regarding Dr. Sami Al-Arian." According to an eyewitness, the meeting was more like a "kangaroo court" than a sober decision-making event. Because of sunshine laws, the meeting had to be publicized and open. Officials publicized it via the USF news listserv, which has relatively few subscribers, at 4:12 p.m.; the meeting took place at 9:00 a.m., far less than 24 hours notice, on a day when most faculty and nearly all students had left for Christmas vacation.

One person who attended the meeting described it this way: "[The] meeting was held in a room with a seating capacity of about 50, although word spread quickly and it was standing room only. Professor Al-Arian, who had been barred from campus, was not allowed to attend. No one except the trustees, the university president, their lawyers, and the head of campus police was allowed to speak. The lawyer, Thomas Gonzalez, expressed the opinion that the board could recommend firing because Dr. Al-Arian had caused disruption. He cited a 1994 Alabama case decided by the Supreme Court where a nurse at a public hospital had criticized the obstetrics unit and was promptly fired for doing so. The majority upheld that action, because her speech had caused disruption in the unit and undermined the confidence of patients and staff. Gonzalez said that under this ruling public employees could be fired if they make their co-workers 'uncomfortable.' It begged an incredibly broad interpretation, and the only board member to discuss the fact that tenure was at stake was Howard President H. Patrick Swygert -- the only Black member and the only trustee involved with higher education -- who participated via conference call.

"Further discussion reinforced that fact that Dr. Al-Arian had negatively impacted the university's fundraising efforts and that was sufficient reason to fire him. The campus police representative explained that they are not really able to handle sustained security threats, don't have the staff or money so this inability to provide a safe environment is cause to fire a tenured professor. The Board chair repeatedly referred to Dr. Al-Arian as a terrorist, implying that he was responsible for recent incidents in Israel. The chair went on to explain that this was not about unpopular views or speech, but that it was necessary in order to protect the students and faculty and staff. The campus officer testified that there had been no new threats for the past six weeks, so by their own admission, security problems are not ongoing.

"Former Senator Connie Mack was the only one present who questioned the rectitude of denying academic freedom on the basis of the criminal and threatening actions of others, but he relented and voted in favor of firing him. Trustee Margarita R. Cancio, MD, a Cuban native who has spoken out many times in support of free speech insisted that Dr. Al-Arian had to be fired because he was not performing his duties in the classroom -- he was suspended and barred from coming on campus -- and had abandoned his job, so [they] had little choice but to fire him. The Dean of Engineering argued that the university's fundraising activities had been adversely affected. And so on, ad nauseum.

"Dr. Al-Arian was not there; his lawyer may have been there, but he was not allowed to speak. The President of the union was there but he was not allowed to speak. No faculty member or student was allowed to speak. The President of the student body, the student representative on the board, gave a truly disgusting speech about this being USF's finest hour. It was pretty amazing."

After the meeting, not everyone remained silent. According to a statement by the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace, former USF Faculty senate president Nancy Tyson said: "It's unjust that such a meeting was held without any notice or due process afforded to Dr. Al-Arian. It's also quite disturbing that many statements that were said at the meeting were factually incorrect including the allegation that Dr. Al-Arian ever spoke on behalf of USF."

In accepting the board's recommendation and firing Dr. Al-Arian South Florida President Judy Genshaft was no profile in courage. In a statement cloaked in the defense of academic freedom and free speech but in reality a capitulation to the Board, Genshaft said that "the fundamental question [was] how much disruption the University must endure because of the manner in which a professor exercises his right to express political and social views that are outside the scope of his employment." If that was the "fundamental question" then she has completely misread what the fight against terrorism is about. A question that she should be asking is, Why haven't law enforcement and university officials fully investigated where the threats to Dr. Al-Arian have come from?

Genshaft, giving in to a highly politicized Board of Trustees as well as to those making the threats, complained that the "controversy is consuming resources of many divisions of the University, and based on information presented to trustees today, it will continue to do so as long as the current arrangement continues. The University Police advise that we cannot guarantee the safety of Dr. Al-Arian and students, faculty and staff around him if he were back on campus." Imagine if those in charge of investigating the anthrax letters decided that it was too costly to pursue the investigation. There would be a righteous and justified outcry about "giving in to terrorism."

Dr. Al-Arian's attorney Robert A. Cannella said that the professor would "refrain from making any comments on this matter. Dr. Al-Arian is considering all the options available to him in order to insure that his rights are protected."

A Board in bed with Bush

USF's Board of Trustees is in no way representative of Florida's diverse population. The following bios of USF trustees are taken from a June 2001 state-issued release. The Board is made up of mostly wealthy white men who are well-connected corporate leaders with little-to-no professional educational credentials. According to a source close to USF, they are also mostly donors to the Republican Party and friends of the Governor.

Lee E. Arnold, Jr. is the CEO and chairman of the board of Arnold Companies, Colliers Arnold and a member of the Florida Council of 100; Richard A. "Dick" Beard, III is a real estate advisor with R. A. Beard, Co. who served on the Florida Board of Regents and is a member of the Florida Council of 100; Steven G. Burton is managing partner of the Tampa Office of Broad and Cassel Attorneys at Law; Margarita R. Cancio, MD, is a native of Cuba who emigrated to Florida from Spain; Ann Wilkins Duncan is the senior vice president of CLW Real Estate Services Group; Rhea F. Law is an attorney with the firm of Fowler, White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal & Banker, P.A; Former conservative Republican Senator Connie Mack, who is currently senior policy advisor for Shaw Pittman in Washington, DC.; John B. Ramil, is the president of the Tampa Electric Company; Robert L. Soran is currently president and COO of Uniroyal Technology Corp. and is a member of the Florida Council of 100; Gus A. Stavros chairman of PELAM Investments, Inc.; Chris T. Sullivan, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Outback Steakhouse, Inc., is active in a number of business organizations including the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce; H. Patrick Swygert who since 1995 has been president of Howard University; and USF student body president, Michael Griffin is the 13th member of the Board of Trustees.

American Council of Trustees and Alumni in the house

Last month the Lynn Cheney and Joseph Lieberman founded American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America, and What Can Be Done About It." The report reproduced statements from some 117 college and university faculty who dared to speak-out against or raise questions about the president's war on terrorism. "Defending Civilization" called these academics, the "weak link in America's response to the attack" of September 11. While it wasn't the first shot fired by right-wing organizations against liberal academics since September 11 - -the ubiquitous former leftie turned right-winger David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture is usually the first to spot reds on campus -- the publication did receive a lot of attention from the media. And while much of it criticized ACTA's methodology and shoddy scholarship, the media paid no attention to ACTA's role in helping shape the new paradigm for university governance in Florida.

ACTA is straightforward about its long-term mission and goals. It believes that since its members give enormous sums of money to colleges and universities they should have a voice in making policy decisions. According to its web site, ACTA members contributed $3.4 billion to colleges and universities last year, making the organization "the largest private source of support for higher education." This key aspect of ACTA's agenda was ignored in the press accounts I've seen dealing with ACTA's high-profile report. (For more on ACTA and its report, see "Lynne Cheney's campus crusade: Second Lady's ACTA launches campaign against 'Blame America First' academics.")

In the USF case, as the AP story points out, university president Genshaft also admitted that Professor Al-Arian's "continued employment has prompted alumni and university donors to withdraw their support." By caving to pressure from donors, Genshaft has set the stage for a troubling precedent -- unpopular or dissenting faculty members could be dismissed because some disgruntled donors register their disapproval and threaten to withhold their financial support.

In Florida last summer, ACTA was a major participant during the transition from the Board of Regents run system to the one now under the control of separate boards of trustees. Anne Neal, a vice president and lawyer for ACTA and co-author with Jerry L. Martin, President of ACTA, of the "Defending Civilization" pamphlet, led orientation sessions for all of the state's new trustees. Neal told them that they now had the power over their schools' budgets and academic standards and will also be able to select their schools' presidents. "That's the easy part," she said. She pointed out that the more difficult problem would be revising their schools' policies and examining their personal and business relationships to assure there isn't even the appearance of impropriety.

Is the Al-Arian firing a one-time witchhunt? Is it an aberration owing to the highly charged climate created by the war on terrorism? Could this only happen in Florida? By all accounts, ACTA's work is just beginning. 

Copyright Bill Berkovitz 2001. Reprinted for fair use only.

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