USF Devalued by Al-Arian Ordeal

USF, by virtue of ongoing media mania, seemingly stands for Unabated Sami Fixation. And the University of South Florida hasn’t helped itself with its Glazeresque handling of the firing of the controversial Sami Al-Arian.

Right now, the buzz around the university should be about a lot of things that have nothing to do with the Palestinian professor with friends in all the wrong Islamic places.

In its 40-something history, USF has gone from “Bottlecap U” and “Commuter U” to the prototype, partnership-oriented, urban research university. It helps anchor one end of the I-4 high-tech corridor. Its regional economic impact is measured in 10 figures annually. Its H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute has rapidly ratcheted up in reputation nationally — and internationally.

The second-largest university in the Southeast can revel with a cause over its recently completed $256-million capital campaign, the largest such success in Tampa Bay area history. The endowment of this Research I university has more than tripled — to $243 million — just since 1995. Those are critical numbers, for it’s private dollars that typically make the difference between improvement and excellence at public universities.

In research awards, USF, which is second in the state and 51st in the nation, has gone from $106 million to $186 million in five years. Its Roskamp Institute, to cite just one example, is world renowned for its Alzheimer’s research.

Some of its post-Sept. 11 work, however, is especially relevant — and ironic.

* Through its Center for Biological Defense, USF is the lead player in shoring up Florida’s — and eventually America’s — defense against bioterrorism.

* USF engineers and robots were at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attack. USF was the only university to take part in the first robot-assisted rescue effort at a national disaster scene.

* USF now houses the International Traumatology Institute, an operation that encompasses 15 locations in seven countries.

And yet, USF — “Jihad U” to some — is better known for Al-Arrogance than anti-terror involvement or unprecedented growth. USF President Judy Genshaft now seems headed for a lose-lose scenario, whether she affirms Al-Arrant’s firing or not.

There may yet be, however, some wiggle room for Genshaft. There may be crawl space between the Devil of firing a tenured professor, lobbing one across the bow of academic freedom and risking academic censure — and the deep blue sea of not doing what she and her board of trustees, many students and most of the public feel is best for USF.

To avoid certain Genshafting, the USF President should consider saying this:

“We are NOT firing Professor Al-Arian because he’s a source of national embarrassment, an impediment to recruiting and fund-raising and a repugnant distraction from the business of educating students, although he is all of that. And we are NOT firing him because his presence presents an ongoing threat. We’ve had crank calls before, and the cranks won’t win this time either.

“We are NOT firing him because in the post-Sept. 11 period, his political beliefs have never been more unpopular. No, this university will hold its collective nose — as FSU did with discredited, racist psychologist Glayde Whitney — and NOT fire him for his outspokenly incendiary ways. Words, of course, have consequences, but “Death-to-Israel”-type rhetoric, however inflammatory, is not tantamount to “Fire!” in a crowded lecture hall.

“And we are NOT firing him because he didn’t sufficiently distance himself from the university in his public remarks or trespass on campus. Those were well intentioned but regrettable rationalizations. Nor is this a zero-sum safety issue. We can reasonably safeguard this campus without converting it into an armed camp.

“Moreover, what an unfair precedent it would be to, in effect, hold someone hostage to other people’s overreactions.

“We are fair. But we’re not irresponsible.

“The precedent we DO wish to set is this: ‘If you sponsor, hire and help fund-raise for terrorists and their proxies, you will be fired.’

“And he has been. And he will stay fired.”

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