The Magazine

Terrorism and Other "Scholarly Pursuits"

From the June 16, 2002 issue: The continuing adventures of Sami Al-Arian.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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MEETING THIS WEEK here in Washington, our nation's scholarly community, through the American Association of University Professors duly assembled, stands poised to commit an act of self-betrayal the depth of which is without obvious precedent in the history of American higher education.

It's not a sure thing, of course; "I simply don't see this as a slam dunk," the AAUP's associate general secretary Jordan Kurland has cautioned, without apparent irony. And so we hold out hope that clearer heads, or merely nervous stomachs, will prevail--that the association can somehow be induced to pull back from the brink of a truly ghastly error. Nevertheless, we note with considerable alarm, not least at the damage the AAUP has thus already done its stated principles, that over the past year and a half, Kurland & Co. have made an unbroken string of procedural and substantive decisions whose logic would seem to lead in one direction only.

To wit: The American Association of University Professors appears inclined to blacklist the University of South Florida (USF)--by a formal, annual-convention vote of indefinite "censure" this coming Saturday--as punishment for the steps that school has taken to terminate the employment of Prof. Sami Al-Arian. Whom we have met before, many times, in these pages. And whose decades-long "active extramural interest in Palestinian and Islamic developments," as AAUP investigators have blandly glossed the matter, has lately earned him solitary confinement at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, Florida, pending trial on a detailed, massive, multi-count terrorism-conspiracy indictment.

The AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, advising the group's full membership about the proper disposition of the Al-Arian case, allows as how the good professor's alleged crimes are a "manifestly very serious" business. But Committee A believes it a more serious business that the crimes in question "remain to be proven in a court of law," since "the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' ought to be observed in our institutions of higher learning no less than it is in our courts." Setting an example for us all, then, the Committee formally embraces a wholecloth, wait-and-see presumption that Al-Arian's "extramural interest" has always been entirely innocent of criminal character and that it consequently falls "well within the ambit of academic freedom"--a sanctum that USF has violated by firing the man.

That the academic profession could have lurched so far toward such a blinkered and self-destructive conclusion is no doubt partly due to the fact that it has proceeded with a less than sure grasp of the underlying evidentiary record. Duke University law professor William Van Alstyne, past president and general counsel of the AAUP, and lately chair of its USF investigative committee, is a distinguished and deservedly admired fellow, but he has ill served his colleagues in the present instance. Van Alstyne, for example, has advised Committee A that as recently as October 2000, a U.S. Immigration Court judge determined there was "no evidence" to sustain suspicion that WISE, Al-Arian's now-defunct USF-affiliated think tank, was ever "a front for terrorists." There is more to say about that judge's ruling, as it happens: He had previously reached an exactly opposite determination, he was then forced to reverse himself by the interference of a federal district court, and his original decision now stands--the district court order and the immigration ruling Van Alstyne cites having since been vacated by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Then there is the AAUP's manifest confusion about where, or even whether, there might exist some frontier boundary of "scholarly inquiry"--short of judicially identified lawlessness--beyond which an American professor may not roam without forfeiting the protections of academic freedom and the recognition of his peers. Late last year, a few short weeks before he delivered his draft report to Committee A, Van Alstyne told Duke magazine that it was a "puzzle" why USF had felt a need to level its own, independent charges against Sami Al-Arian "when the federal government has made none." Things would be very different, and the university would be on much stronger ground, were such a federal indictment ever actually released, Van Alstyne explained. Formal criminal accusations "might very well...require" that Al-Arian be dismissed from his teaching position.