May 21, 2005

Al-Arian and symbolism

Now that Judge James Moody has identified a jury for the trial of Sami Al-Arian and three codefendants, it's time for a little reflection on the choices made by USF administrators over the past decade and a little perspective on the meaning of the trial for academic freedom, if there is any. The book I'm writing, Scholar-Citizen, will discuss the case at USF (what do you think started the idea of writing a book in the first place?), but that's one of many incidents in the book. I'll put some broader thoughts together about the case here and over the course of the trial.

A few disclaimers first: I will not take a position on Al-Arian's guilt or innocence. In the next week, I'll explain the relevance of any verdict for the university, but this is about the case on the campus. In addition, my colleague Greg McColm has a much stronger grasp than I on the details of Al-Arian's time at USF (or maybe I should say the details of and allegations about his employment), and is still keeping up a huge repository of information at the on-campus faculty union web site. He'll be the primary author of an article on Al-Arian, USF, due process, and faculty governance that will be appearing in a journal sometime in the next year.

So, to the issue today: Why did some faculty and many Tampa residents want USF to fire Al-Arian long before his indictment on charges that he helped finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad? In 1994 and 1995, a PBS video and newspaper articles in the Tampa Tribune alleged that Al-Arian had helped finance terrorism, and that USF's formal relationship with the World Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) (that Al-Arian had co-founded a few years before) legitimized a slew of activities that were mixed up with the direct and indirect financing of terrorism. USF cut off that relationship in June 1995 and suspended Al-Arian for pay in 1996 during a formal investigation, and then reinstated him to teaching in 1998 after the investigation stated that there was insufficient cause to fire Al-Arian (as part of a broader report into the relationship with WISE). While the controversy over Al-Arian heated up again in 2001 when Al-Arian appeared on the FoxNews "O'Reilly Factor," in reality the local controversy had begun several years before. (See Greg's chronology for a summary timeline of related events.)

I do not think that my neighbors and the minority of my colleagues who wanted Al-Arian fired before 2001 really thought that doing so would end his activities. They're smart enough to know that he would have become a cause celebré, with plenty of time on his hands to raise more money if that's what he did with his free time. Nor do I think that anyone really thought that USF was better equipped to investigate criminal activity than the FBI. Nor, for that matter, was anyone willing to say that anything goes in trying to stop Al-Arian's non-work activities, or at least no one behaved as if they believed it. As far as I'm aware, no one tried to assassinate him (which would be the logical step to take if you really thought Al-Arian financed terrorism and if you really believed that someone other than the justice system should take direct responsibility for action). And, in the end, after all the pretexts put forward in 2001 and 2002, USF fired Al-Arian after he was imprisoned.

So no one could have thoughtfully proposed that USF fire Sami Al-Arian as one step to fight terrorism. Instead, the pressure to fire Al-Arian was largely symbolic: To many who live in Tampa, the presence of Al-Arian shamed USF in some way, and paying him a salary was a violation of USF's moral obligations. There are two pieces of this claim, both the argument that a publicly-funded institution has additional obligations not to hire shady characters as faculty, simply because they are publicly funded, and also the argument about a university's moral obligations.

The first argument is about public funding and has been used repeatedly as a justification to fire unpopular faculty at state universities, from William Schaper at the University of Minnesota in 1917 to Al-Arian to Ward Churchill in 2005. (See Carol Gruber's Mars and Minerva for Schaper's case.) But there are both legal and ethical reasons why this purse-strings argument is untrue. Legally, governments are under First Amendment restrictions in its hiring and firing practices. A private university has far more legal leeway to fire a faculty member for the faculty member's public statements and off-campus activities than a public university (even where doing so would violate principles of academic freedom).

More fundamentally, however, he who pays the piper does not call the tune in professional relationships. When we bought our home, we had a buyer's agent. The buyer's agent was paid 2.5 or 3 percent of the purchase price, and that money came from the seller. Even though the seller was paying our agent, our agent had no obligation to maximize the purchase price. In fact, her fiduciary obligation was ethically and legally to us—to give us the best advice on buying a good house at the lowest cost. In many areas of business, fiduciary obligations are guided by a professional-client relationship, not by who pays the professional.

Even if we were to accept that professors should pay heed to whoever pays the bills, it is unclear how we should decide matters where there might be a conflict. The legislature gives operating money to the university, but my students also pay fees. What should I do when a student performs poorly in a course? The student might say, "I paid tuition. I should get the course credit." But most of my fellow taxpayers would probably say the opposite. Both are paying for my salary. If I followed the money, I would have no clear guidance.

So the identity of whoever pays my check is generally irrelevant to my professional obligations as a faculty member and irrelevant to the central institutional obligations of a college or university. (I am not arguing that there are not accountability issues with public funding in terms of tracking the funding, following state laws, following the state and federal constitutions, etc. Nor am I saying that administrators should ignore state legislators. This matter is about the core principles of any college or university.)

After disposing of the claims that USF could have fought terrorism by firing Al-Arian or that it was obliged by its publicly-funded status to fire Al-Arian, we are left with the argument that a university has a moral obligation to maintain clean hands in its hiring practices and to be willing to fire faculty against whom there are serious allegations of immoral actions off campus. The difference between me and my colleagues and neighbors who believe this argument is that we have different ideas about a university's basic obligations. It is not about fighting terrorism, and it is not about public funding. At its core, a university's core principles is what the argument about Al-Arian and USF is all about.

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Posted in Academic freedom on May 21, 2005 4:55 PM |