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.
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?
Sami Al-Arian and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, his indictment reminds us, "utilized the University of South Florida . . . as an institution where some of their members could receive cover as teachers or students." Al-Arian used the USF faculty credit union to launder and transfer thousands of dollars ultimately intended for the benefit of Islamic Jihad suicide bombers. From USF-sponsored property, Al-Arian helped broadcast public boasts about the 1995 killing of an American college student then visiting Israel. Under USF auspices, in short, Sami Al-Arian acted secretly, for years on end, in the interests of a foreign entity claiming possession of a truth so vast and complete as to justify the wholesale murder of innocents. The man has a totalitarian mind and a willingness to act on it.
Which is the type of thing, we would have thought, from which America's professoriate should recoil in fear and horror. And not the type of thing they would stoop to clothe in the finery of academic freedom.