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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On February 20, eight days after Committee A approved Van Alstyne's USF report for distribution to all concerned parties, the situation that might very well require revocation of Sami Al-Arian's tenure privileges did indeed arise, needless to say, with a predawn FBI arrest at the professor's home. Whereupon Committee A, without explanation, quietly but significantly moved the academic profession's ethical-standards goalpost. At least at AAUP headquarters, the new view appears to be that Al-Arian's "extramural interest in Palestinian and Islamic developments" must be considered proper, and his place in the community of scholars therefore held secure, until and unless a government-organized jury of nonacademic laymen decides otherwise and sends him to prison.

Unfortunately, the new view at AAUP headquarters, wittingly or not, represents a direct and total subversion of precisely those ideals the organization was founded to advance.

The Magna Carta of American academic freedom, AAUP's December 1915 "Declaration of Principles," jointly signed by the association's first president, John Dewey, and the members of its original Committee A, announced that strictly independent authority to regulate faculty membership was fundamental to the very "function of the academic institution." A "claim to freedom in teaching is made in the interest of integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry," so it is "only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer" who may either "justly assert this claim"--or deny it. It would be "unsuitable to the dignity of a great profession" and "deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities" if "responsibility for the maintenance of [the academy's] professional standards should not be in the hands of its own members." The nation's scholarly community must take unilateral initiative to "purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy." That work must never be subcontracted off-campus--to an impaneled federal trial jury or anyone else.

That Sami Al-Arian might be the kind of unworthy man properly subject to a purge by his own university--and that such a purge might serve, rather than undermine, the interests of academic freedom in the United States--would once have been an utterly uncontroversial notion. Certain forms of "moral turpitude," as the AAUP argued in a major 1940 statement still today incorporated by reference into the employment contract of virtually every American college professor, inevitably "evoke condemnation by the academic community generally" and demand unconditional discharge from a faculty position. In 1953, the Association of American Universities warned against one such transgression "above all" others: The honorable professor "owes his colleagues in the university complete candor and perfect integrity, precluding any kind of clandestine or conspiratorial activities." Any professor's failure of candor about such activities "lays upon his university an obligation to reexamine his qualifications for membership in its society."

A word here about AAUP's asserted "presumption of innocence" with respect to Al-Arian: It is purely ritualistic, a pretense. Everyone involved in the case, Van Alstyne and all the others, must by now have carefully inspected the 121-page federal grand jury indictment lodged against Al-Arian, and--being rational, intelligent people--each of them can have arrived at but a single judgment about the thousands of electronically intercepted telephone conversations and fax messages the indictment promises the government will introduce into evidence at trial. Where his personal liberty or imprisonment is concerned, the first part of this judgment, that Sami Al-Arian is for all intents and purposes a serial murderer, ultimately remains--the AAUP is right--for the courts to confirm. But the second part--that Al-Arian's murderous conspiracy, throughout the 17-plus years he taught at the University of South Florida, involved an assault on American higher education more than severe enough to justify banishment from academic life--ought to be instantaneous, we think. What's the wait?