US split over axed suspect

March 7, 2003

The University of South Florida faces censure by the leading US faculty union after it last week fired a Palestinian-American professor whom the US government claimed had ties to terrorism.

Sami Al-Arian was sacked 18 months after being placed on paid administrative leave for what the university called "security concerns", following a television news broadcast that suggested he had ties to Islamic Jihad.

Professor Al-Arian was indicted by the government last month and charged with serving as a chief US fundraiser for the terrorist group, which has killed more than 100 people in the past ten years.

Among other things, the 120-page indictment accuses Professor Al-Arian of using a university-affiliated think-tank called World Islam Studies Enterprises to funnel money to terrorists.

It also alleges that Islamic Jihad used the university, in Tampa, as cover for some of its members as faculty or students and that the university was used as a vehicle to bring other members to the US "under the guise of academic conferences and meetings".

South Florida president Judy Genshaft said that after consulting widely, including with Professor Al-Arian's faculty colleagues: "The university must sever all ties to Sami Al-Arian once and for all. Professor Al-Arian has repeatedly abused his position at the university. No longer will he be able to hide behind the shield of academic freedom."

But Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said the indictment did not mean that Professor Al-Arian was guilty.

"In this country, on these campuses, we ask that administrations not act unilaterally and that [they] subject [their] beliefs to due process," he said.

Mr Knight said the university was required to afford Professor Al-Arian a hearing before his faculty peers and that the process as it was played out seemed "upside-down".

"They sentence the person, and then later have some hearing on the matter," he said.

But university spokesman Michael Reich said that the AAUP seemed to think "tenure entitles you to a job for life even if you support terrorism". He added: "That's an extremist view, and we disagree with it."

The university's decision was popular on campus. "From day one, I've said we were safer without him," said Mike Griffin, USF student body president.

"Now his salary can go to more important things."

The AAUP maintains a list of 50 or so universities that it says fail to meet recognised principles of academic freedom, and advises its 45,000 members to act with caution when considering accepting appointments at the listed institutions.

Professor Al-Arian has consistently denied association with terrorist activities.

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