In a controversial move to alleviate safety concerns at the University of Southern Florida, its Board of Trustees passed an unfortunate but unanimous vote on Dec. 20 in favor of terminating tenured computer science professor Dr. Sami al-Arian. The University took action in response to the supposed danger that al-Arian posed to students and faculty after the university received numerous threats regarding his appearance on the television show “The O”Reilly Factor.”
Al-Arian is a Palestinian-born United States citizen who has been a faculty member at Southern Florida since 1986 and in that time had earned both tenure at the university and the respect and friendship of innumerable students and colleagues. Three months before his termination, shortly after Sept. 11, al-Anian was invited to discuss the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on the Fox Network”s “The O”Reilly Factor”.
Al-Arian vehemently condemned the attacks, but host Bill O”Reilly was quick to turn the conversation into a one-sided assault, accusing al-Arian of having links to terrorism. O”Reilly brought up past charges against al-Anian that had been dropped following a thorough FBI investigation.
Immediately after his appearance on the show, al-Arian and the computer science department began to receive threatening phone calls and e-mail. Because of these security concerns, he was promptly placed on paid leave. Less than three months later he was unjustly terminated due to his alleged failure to adequately dissociate his political views with those of the university the board believed that his presence was impeding the efficient operation of the university.
The decision has come as a great surprise to the faculty union at Southern Florida, which was justifiably angered that al-Arian was not allowed to defend himself and that the faculty were not represented in the hearing.
While a spokesman for the university claimed that due process was followed closely, the hearing was deliberately unfair because, according to faculty union members, only the board”s own witnesses were invited. Such injustice comes as a severe blow to free speech and due process, particularly in the university environment where the tradition of academic freedom should be fostering a progressive, open-minded atmosphere.
What is more alarming is that al-Arian was terminated despite his tenure status, a status which demonstrated his devotion to the field and the respect he had attained. Professors in this position are typically fired only for gross incompetence.
Clearly this is no longer just a matter of civil liberties, but also a question of ethics as to how far institutions will go to appease the critical public, no matter how uncertain or secretive the grounds for accusation.
It is inspiring to know, however, that in the defense of al-Arian, the faculty union is filing a grievance against the board of trustees and the American Association of University Professors is investigating the unjust termination.