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USF ties to Islamic group defended

Published Oct. 4, 2005

The president of the University of South Florida said Friday that she has found no evidence to link a local Islamic group with illegal activities.

And she reiterated that a university cannot exclude groups or political points of view just because others may find them objectionable.

President Betty Castor said a recent trip to China _ "where a few short years ago students were killed in the pursuit of free expression of ideas" _ had reinforced her commitment to keeping the unique role of American universities free from political restrictions or interference.

"My hope is that USF will continue to be a center of discourse and discussion, where faculty and students can articulate their opinions and differences in an educational setting," she said.

Castor's statement came three weeks after the Tampa Tribune sparked an emotional controversy by reporting that a USF professor and a private research group affiliated with USF had ties to Palestinian terrorists.

The professor and other USF experts on the Middle East strongly denied the reports, which they said relied heavily on unnamed sources and guilt by association. But Castor's office received dozens of angry letters from people demanding that the professor be fired and that any USF links with the World and Islam Studies Enterprise _ known as WISE _ be severed.

Interim provost Michael Kovac supervised the university's response while Castor was away, including an internal investigation that revealed management lapses in two financial transactions with WISE: The university wrongfully hired WISE to furnish a part-time language instructor in order to get around the instructor's visa problems, and a USF graduate student supported by WISE somehow was never given a work assignment in return for his stipend.

Castor asked Friday for a more detailed review of how the university manages similar arrangements to prevent such mistakes from happening again. And she prohibited further transactions with WISE until that review is finished. A report is due Sept. 1.

But she rejected the idea that USF ought to investigate WISE or the professor to clear them of terrorist links.

"I am deeply concerned by implications that the university should "investigate' entities or people and be the arbiter of what political, social or religious ideology is "good' or "evil,' " Castor wrote in an open memorandum to her staff. "Investigation and enforcement of the laws of the state of Florida and the United States is the province of law enforcement."

When a Tribune reporter first raised questions about WISE and USF in April, "we made immediate, responsible inquiries to appropriate law enforcement authorities to determine whether anyone had knowledge of any illegal activities on our campus and whether any threat to safety existed," she wrote.

"We were advised that no illegal activities were taking place and no threat to safety existed. We must rely on law enforcement officials in making these determinations. Of course, the university will not enter into or continue an agreement or contract with any individual or entity that has violated local, state, federal or international laws or which poses a threat to safety on our campus."

Arthur Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League, among others, had asked USF and state university Chancellor Charles Reed to investigate WISE and its ties to the university. Teitelbaum said he had a long, "candid and constructive" conversation with Castor on Friday. "She assured me of her sensitivity to the Jewish community in this matter," he said.

But he disagreed with Castor's view of academic freedom. "Surely a relationship between the university and third parties is based on criteria that extend beyond the issue of lawbreaking," he said. "I am certain that they include questions of character and propriety. And I know that Betty Castor has a deep concern for the good name of the university."

Teitelbaum said he hoped USF's continued review of how the university manages outside relationships would provide an opportunity to break off with WISE. The two have sponsored academic conferences and other activities together, although nothing in their agreement obligates one side or the other.

The USF official who has conducted the internal reviews, however, said he understands that further investigation will focus only on making sure that appropriate administrators are involved in supervising the various types of external relationships. Those relationships can range from informal collaborations among individuals to more formal and complicated exchanges of people and resources, said associate provost Tennyson Wright. Different relationships require different levels of control.

The challenge in a wide-ranging institution like USF, Castor said, is how not to burden professors with bureaucracy while making sure that appropriate people are accountable for university resources.

As for outside threats to the university's independence, "I feel like the university is very vulnerable" she said, noting that many other schools have been challenged for the speakers and activities they have brought to campus.

Balancing that independence against the views and sensitivities of people in the community can be difficult, she said. The terrorist allegations were especially troubling because they came from "a reputable newspaper, a newspaper that has been extremely supportive of this university ... (and because) the emotions on the subject of terrorism run so high. I cannot imagine a topic that can garner a more emotional response than terrorism.

"On the other hand, I feel the Jewish community is legitimately concerned," she said. "We will reach out and try to go through some new intense dialogue" about those concerns.

"We need to make people understand that the university welcomes them, but at the same time, we welcome others."