Monday, February 11, 2002

The case of Sami al-Arian is one of those massive collisions of grandiose principles that inevitably ends with logic and consistency lying mangled in the middle of the road. Al-Arian, a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida for the past decade and a half, had, according to investigative journalist Steven Emerson, a rather unconventional hobby: he was a local organizer and fundraiser for the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Until recently, his employers never bothered to interfere with his extracurricular activities. But after FOX commentator Bill O'Reilly brought them to light in the course of a television interview with him in late September of 2001, all hell broke loose on campus, and USF president Judy Genshaft decided to fire him for straying "outside the scope of his employment" in a way that was disruptive to the smooth functioning and security of the university.

This action in turn prompted howls of outrage, not only from the left (all the way from The Progressive, crying "McCarthyism", to the New York Times, defending "[f]ree speech and academic freedom"), but also on the right, with Ronald Radosh arguing that Genshaft's stand, if emulated, "would in fact lead to the end of the free university in the United States", and Daniel Pipes dismissing her arguments as "poor excuses". Both of the latter gentlemen, on the other hand, argued, along with David Tell of the Weekly Standard, that al-Arian should have been fired anyway, and perhaps worse, for providing active help to a terrorist group.

All of these commentators, with the exception of Tell, explicitly invoked either the First Amendment or the principle of academic freedom in arguing against the university's claimed grounds for firing him. Moreover, in keeping with their reading of these freedoms, none of them attached the slightest importance to whether any of al-Arian's words or deeds ever bled into his university activities, or whether they were all kept entirely separate. In fact, al-Arian apparently played some role in arranging for one of Islamic Jihad's front organizations to become affiliated with USF, and also tried to get a member of that organization, one Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, hired as a professor of Middle East studies there. (Shallah eventually moved to Syria, where he became secretary-general of Islamic Jihad--though probably without tenure.)

But putting aside, for the moment, the specific case at hand: what if, say, a USF janitor were discovered to be spending his spare time as an activist and public advocate for (or simply a member of) the Ku Klux Klan, or a club specializing in violent pornography, or some other legal-but-widely-reviled organization? Conversely, what if a USF professor were to wangle a USF affiliation, and its attendant privileges, for a "think tank" that was actually secretly an arm of, say, the Republican Party, and to attempt to sneak a local Republican Party chair into a professorship in the department of political science? Wouldn't the university's academic integrity and stature be much more threatened, and its adminstration thus much more justified in taking action, in the latter case than in the former?

The shocking truth is that until this past fall, so miserably did America fail to take seriously the terrorist threat that al-Arian's extensive efforts on behalf of Islamic Jihad were in all likelihood perfectly legal. And post-9/11 sensibilities notwithstanding, it is not the proper role of any employer to decide on the legality (retroactive or otherwise) of its employees' extra-vocational activities--for reasons of basic privacy that have nothing to do with either the First Amendment or academic freedom.

On the other hand, for a professor to attempt to co-opt the university's name, funds or other resources on behalf of a partisan political (let alone terrorist) organization is--or at least ought to be--a firing offense. That it is in fact an offense ubiquitously committed, often applauded and almost never punished, is merely a searing indictment of the modern university, and of the defenders of "academic freedom" who have so thoroughly corrupted it. Tenure and its accompanying protection are supposed to be granted as part of a noble bargain, in which the academic seeker-of-truth renounces all loyalties and attachments in return for the respect and protection accorded the dedicatedly detached. Instead, tenure is generally viewed as a safe, sheltered platform from which to participate unabashedly in partisan political combat--both on campus and off. Thus, a professor who attempts to insinuate a foreign political group's influence into his university runs into opposition only when said organization is crass enough to kill random civilians. And even then, his shameful betrayal of academic principles is widely defended under the cynical banner of "academic freedom".

Some agree with president Genshaft that Dr. al-Arian should have been fired. Others believe that Genshaft should have been the one ousted. As far as I'm concerned, both sides are right--and a lot more should follow them.

1 comment:

TCO said...

The sophisticate blues are a bunch of hypocrites. They cheat on their taxes like Clinton deducting his underwear. They create byzantine structures of deductions...and hate the AMT. While at the same time urging higher marginal rates.

They seem to get ahead on things like cell phone bandwidth auctions and Thain-like schemes to make the NYSE into a government sponsored monopoly. I hate them. Hate Repugs on the take also. Like to put them in a sack and drown them. They make me so angry.

Oh...and they're pussies.