Scholar cancels speech at USF to protest Al-Arian's treatment

Published Sept. 14, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

A prominent Islamic scholar at Georgetown University has canceled a speech at the University of South Florida next month because of the school's handling of the case of professor Sami Al-Arian.

John Esposito, a worldwide expert on contemporary Islam who was once recruited by USF, was supposed to speak to students Oct. 17 as part of the university's annual lecture series.

"The unfortunate decision of your president makes it impossible for me to participate at a function at a university that so clearly violates the academic freedom of one of its professors," he wrote in an e-mail to USF. "For the sake of USF, its faculty and students, I hope that situation will change in the immediate future."

USF president Judy Genshaft accuses Al-Arian of having terrorist ties and took the unusual step in August of filing suit, asking a judge to determine whether firing him would violate his constitutional rights.

"We are disappointed he is not coming," USF spokeswoman Marsha Strickhouser said. "It's unfortunate he can't come and educate our students."

Professors from across the world have written to Genshaft supporting the tenured computer science professor after he was first placed on leave a year ago. The American Association of University Professors, a respected group influential in higher education, has threatened to censure USF if the school fires him.

Jorland Kurland, AAUP's associate general secretary, said Friday he expects more professors to decline to work for, speak at or be recognized by USF if the school receives a censure, a powerful force in academia that can have a significant impact on faculty hiring and retention.

"It's not surprising that distinguished academics pay attention to these controversies," said Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union. "We do care about academic freedom."

Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies, founded Georgetown's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is considered one of the foremost experts on Islam, and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and appeared on CNN and ABC's Nightline.

His talk, Class of Civilization, was to be part of the university lecture series, an annual event sponsored by student government.

"It's disappointing," said Mike Griffin, student body president. "It would have been beneficial to have him come speak to students."

USF threatened to fire Al-Arian last year after allegations that he had ties to terrorists were aired on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was placed on paid leave from his $67,500-a-year job after the appearance.

Genshaft filed suit in Hillsborough County Circuit County last month. Al-Arian's attorney, Robert McKee, said he plans to ask a judge to move the case from state court to federal court and respond to the allegations Monday.

Al-Arian, who has known Esposito casually for a dozen years, said he had mixed feelings about the lecture being canceled. He wanted Esposito to be heard, but that he thinks that it sends an important message to the school.

"That message is being heard loudly by USF administrators," he said.