USF must protect faculty from threats

Sami Al-Arian is a computer scientist. He has taught at the University of South Florida since 1986. He is also a Palestinian who throughout his life has been critical of Israel. In the world before Sept. 11, these two facts did not come into conflict with one another. Since Sept. 11, however, his political beliefs resulted in the USF board of trustees recommending his firing.

More than 10 years ago, Al-Arian said, “Jihad is our path. Victory for Islam. Death to Israel. Revolution. Revolution. Revolution until victory. Rolling to Jerusalem.” He has since clarified his “death to Israel” statement to mean death to the state of Israel, not to Israeli Jews, or in fact any individuals. Nonetheless, these statements were controversial and, since Sept. 11, have been criticized heavily. Al-Arian appeared on the nationally televised “O’Reilly Factor” on Sept. 26 and defended his remarks. Over the next few weeks, USF was bombarded with calls expressing outrage at Al-Arian’s comments. Some of these callers even threatened Al-Arian’s life.

In response to the threats, USF placed Al-Arian on paid leave as it tried to determine his future. Cowering to public pressure, some of it exerted by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the USF board of trustees voted on Dec. 19 to dismiss Al-Arian.

This dismissal represents the most egregious assault on the integrity of a university. Ironically, it came from within the university itself. Tenure exists because faculty members must be allowed freedom to pursue their research interests. Universities have a responsibility to protect faculty members from outside influences; in fact that is one of the fundamental premises behind the tenure system.

While USF must take its students’ safety seriously, their solution is a shortsighted remedy to a greater problem. Unpopular ideas and their proponents are often placed in danger. But to punish a professor because others dislike his ideas is unconscionable.

Universities are a marketplace of ideas. This notion makes them a catalyst for both intellectual and social change. This marketplace can only exist if faculty members are protected.

Now, instead of debating the merit of Al-Arian’s ideas in a free and public way, USF has fired him. Al-Arian has said he will fight his termination. The legal system will be the new ground for this debate about the role of universities. Hopefully, there the integrity the tenure system provides will be restored.