April 17, 2005

Al-Arian semi-retrospective

The St. Petersburg Times today printed a retrospective of sorts on the long-term influence of the Al-Arian imbroglio on the campus of USF. On the whole, David Ballingrud has it about right in terms of the fallout thus far, where he discusses it: faculty activism pushed back against efforts to give administrators wholesale discretion to dismiss faculty for a variety of vague concerns, prompting the administration and chair of our Board of Trustees to reverse the emergency rules and apologize in a very limited way in early 2003 for their mishandling of affairs. Since then, the administration approved a second Faculty Senate proposal to create a pre-dismissal hearing process for faculty (after the firing of Al-Arian) and agreed to better academic-freedom language. That has been solidified with a collective bargaining agreement concluded in the fall that I think is better than anywhere else in the state at the moment. Much of the credit for that collective bargaining agreement goes to the cooperation between the Faculty Senate and the United Faculty of Florida (our union) in making sure that there was no chance that divide-and-conquer tactics could succeed.

There are several exceptions to this reasonably good outcome:

  1. For at least a good portion of the faculty, our institutional memory of the Al-Arian affair still leaves a considerable discomfort about the way that the administration and trustees have not been held accountable for their handling of issues (I suppose this is residual bitterness I hear from a few colleagues) as well as some concerns that the way the administration ignored due process can reappear at any point.
  2. It is not sure whether the academic-freedom provisions guaranteed faculty would extend to graduate students and adjuncts, if push came to shove. Given the extensive reliance on contingent faculty in our and other universities, this is troubling. Several years ago, the state's risk-management bureau pushed the university to settle a lawsuit by a disguntled student upset that a graduate student had shown nude photographs in a class (after he had made clear that students could leave for that class and not be penalized).
  3. As Ballingrud notes, many Muslim students feel far more vulnerable than any faculty member.
  4. In expending energy to address the academic-freedom crisis (and a challenge to the faculty union, which I won't get into here), my colleagues have had little chance to address some of the long-term structural issues with our university. Part of that is a matter of time, but the lingering friction between a number of faculty and the administration writ large (though not all top administrators) means that there is a large reservoir of distrust that might interfere with working together. That's more a concern rather than an inevitable barrier, and in some ways the growth of faculty activism might promote some structural improvements. I don't know.

And I'm sure I'm not hitting half of the consequences (let alone the subtle ways this will reverberate over the years)...

Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on April 17, 2005 2:17 PM |