USF faces censure vote today

Published June 14, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

The Sami Al-Arian controversy has brought the University of South Florida costly legal action, embarrassing national attention and a rift that divided the campus.

Today, the school will learn if its decision to fire Al-Arian has earned it another black eye.

A national group influential in higher education will decide whether to censure USF for violating the tenured professor's academic rights.

The American Association of University Professors already has concluded that USF shouldn't have fired Al-Arian before he had a chance to defend himself in court against federal charges of terrorism.

The question now is whether the school will be formally censured, an embarrassing stigma in academia.

About 300 professors nationwide, including a handful from USF, will vote at the AAUP's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

University administrators often downplay the impact of censure, saying it does not change the education that students receive. But professors describe it as a humiliating blacklist.

The actual impact probably falls somewhere in the middle.

University accreditation, based in part on academic freedom, can be affected. A censured school is not likely to be considered for membership in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, a distinction USF has sought for years. And it can be harder to hire and retain quality faculty.

"It is a public notice that this institution is not as good as it should be," said Roy Weatherford, president of the USF faculty union. "It's a sign that something is wrong there."

But censure is unlikely to hurt student enrollment, faculty research grants, private donations or its reputation outside higher education.

"All those traditional measures of what makes a good university are still going up," USF spokesman Michael Reich said.

USF is the only school under threat of censure this year. If it happens, USF will become one of only 10 universities that have been censured twice.

The first time was in 1964, when then-President John Allen refused to hire a political science professor who had written a book critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

"Even if we don't make it, we're in purgatory," said Charles Arnade, a USF professor who was at USF during the first censure. "We've been tainted."

"A perfect storm'

Since its inception in 1915, the AAUP has taken a lead role in developing the principles and standards that govern the relationship between university faculty and administration.

Hundreds of influential organizations adhere to AAUP principles, including the Modern Language Association, the American Political Science Association and the Association of American Law Schools.

The AAUP began censuring administrations for violations of academic freedom and tenure in 1930. Since then, more than 100 have appeared on its list; 53 of them remain.

"No one really knows what the consequences will be ahead of time," said Sherman Dorn, a USF professor who has studied censure. "But people across the country will know about it. It'll be a perfect storm of bad publicity."

Many of the schools that have been censured are small, private or religious. Some were cited for firing tenured faculty without proving a financial need. Others were slapped for firing professors for religious or political reasons.

One of the most famous cases involved the California Board of Regents, which was censured in 1972 for firing UCLA professor Angela Davis, a black militant and member of the Communist Party U.S.A.

"Any reputable institution will go to great lengths to avoid censure," said Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

A school can petition the AAUP to get off the list, but it must show that it has rectified the problem or changed its policies. Some don't bother.

"For some presidents, it's a statement of principle," said Philo Hutcheson, a Georgia State University professor who specializes in higher education. "They don't think they need a bunch of professors in D.C. telling them what to do."

Casting judgment

USF's problems with the AAUP began a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Al-Arian appeared on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. The show's report on his ties to terrorists _ allegations he has vehemently denied _ elicited hundreds of angry phone calls to USF and several death threats.

Citing safety concerns, USF president Judy Genshaft placed Al-Arian, 45, on paid leave and banned him from campus. She fired him 15 months later, after federal agents arrested him on charges that he was the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that has killed dozens of people in the past decade.

Genshaft said Al-Arian's alleged terrorist activities were harming the school and interfering with his job, which violated his employment contract.

That prompted a visit to USF by an AAUP investigating committee. Last month, the group concluded that USF disregarded Al-Arian's due process rights by ending his employment before he had a chance to defend himself in court.

"The principle of "innocent until proven guilty' ought to be observed in our institutions of higher learning no less than it is on our courts," the committee wrote.

USF officials, who will not be present at today's meeting, have asked the AAUP to hold off on its censure vote until Al-Arian's case is concluded.

"If they are going to cast judgment on Al-Arian's due process, they should wait," said Reich, the USF spokesman.

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

Censured schools

Since 1930, the American Association of University Professors has been censuring university administrations for violations of academic freedom and tenure. The impact of censure _ similar to a public reprimand in the world of higher education _ is debatable, but many say it can hurt a school's ability to hire and retain quality faculty. More than 100 schools have been censured; 53 remain on the list.

University of South Florida, 1964

Then-president John Allen refuses to hire political science professor D.F. Fleming, who has written a book critical of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Censure is lifted in 1968.

University of Florida, 1971

Four professors are fired; one for making unpopular statements, participating in civil rights protests and advocating student and faculty control of the university; three are fired for refusing to sign the state's loyalty oath. Censure is lifted in 1975.

University of California, Los Angeles, 1972

The state's Board of Regents fires professor Angela Davis for being a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. Censure is lifted in 1990.

Arizona State University, 1976

A philosophy professor and self-described communist is fired after he publicly supports leftist causes and permits students to miss class to attend an antiwar rally. Censure is lifted in 1983.

State University of New York, 1978

The school fires more than 100 tenured faculty members without demonstrating an urgent financial need. Still on censure list.

Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 1990

A tenured professor declared by the Vatican to be ineligible to teach Catholic theology because of his published views on sexual ethics is suspended without proof that his teaching poses an immediate harm. Still on censure list.

Saint Leo College, 1990

The school does not reappoint a professor who alleges sex discrimination, and then does not allow her a hearing. Censure is lifted in 1999.

Brigham Young University, 1998

A professor is denied tenure after her actions and words are deemed contrary to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and harmful to the school. Still on censure list.

Sources: American Association of University Professors, Times research