University Trustees Clear Way for Palestinian Professor to Be Fired

University of South Florida's trustees agreed Wednesday a Palestinian professor linked to known terrorists should be fired for disrupting university operations.

Sami Al-Arian, a tenured computer science professor who has been at the public university since 1986, has been the subject of continuous death threats because of his support for anti-Israeli interests. Al-Arian's appearance on a national television talk show after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted a stream of threats against him and the university. He has never been charged with a crime.

Al-Arian has been on paid leave as a security risk since, but in recent weeks his continued employment has prompted alumni and university donors to withdraw their support, university President Judy Genshaft said.

Genshaft has the power to dismiss Al-Arian and has advocated the move, but she sought guidance from the trustees before proceeding. The next step would be a letter of notice of the pending dismissal that would give him 10 days to respond.

The recommendation prompted concern that academic freedom was being threatened and Al-Arian was being fired because of his unpopular views.

"This has nothing to do with academic freedom," said Richard Beard III, chairman of the board of trustees. "It has to do with what he's done to the university."

Al-Arian, who also runs an Islamic school and community center, could not immediately comment on the developments, his wife said.

The professor has 10 days to respond. He can ask an independent arbitrator to review his dismissal and to take the university to court in a civil lawsuit.

"I understand the situation for the university," said Pilar Saad, who works with Al-Arian at the Islamic academy. "But it's not a fair decision."

Al-Arian once headed an academic think tank on Islamic issues, World and Islam Studies Enterprises, later connected to fund raising for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. His brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar was jailed for three years on secret evidence as a threat to national security.

WISE was a host of conferences that drew known terrorists, including Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Muslim cleric later convicted of a failed plot to blow up New York City landmarks.

Al-Arian was videotaped at some of the institute conferences a decade ago rallying the crowd with shouts of "death to Israel." He now says he was making a political statement regarding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and what he considers Israeli oppression, not advocating deaths of people.

Al-Arian appeared on a Sept. 26 segment of Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor and was questioned about his links to terrorism as the television screen displayed the university's logo. A barrage of threats by telephone and e-mail the next day prompted university police to shut down the computer science department where Al-Arian worked, a day later he was banned from campus.

The WISE think tank was raided by the FBI in 1995 and its assets were frozen. Another former head of the think tank, Ramadan Abdulah Shallah, left it in 1995 and resurfaced as the head of a terrorist organization, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Al-Arian has never been detained, but the institute and a related charity for Palestinians had been accused by the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents of being a fund-raising front for terrorists.