This Began Long Before Sept. 11:
Every controversy has a past, often one that is far more complex
and in far more shades of grey, blue, red, brown, etc, than
one might initially expect.
This controversy is no different.
But to understand a controversy, one must understand from whence
Here are several sections on the background of the dispute between Sami
Al-Arian and the Administration of the University of South Florida.
Here are three pages on the background of the dispute between Sami
Al-Arian and the Administration of the University of South Florida.
This page contains a sketch on Academic Freedom, and links to the other
two background pages.
The other two pages are:
is the daughter
--- Wm. Shakespeare
ABOUT ACADEMIC FREEDOM ...
UFF is defended three principles as it defended Professor Al Arian's
Two of them are popularly understood:
The third one is a bit more mysterious to people outside academia:
Freedom of speech.
It is hard to imagine a democracy without freedom of speech; in fact,
freedom of speech, of the press, of conscience, of assembly, of petition,
are together the vital part of the American heritage.
The difference between civilized government and tyranny lies in the law.
Civilized governments do not make laws up as they go along; they use
well-established procedures under law.
The roots of academic freedom are deep.
There are two kinds of people that ancient societies permitted to say things
most other people were not permitted to say:
But there were limits, even for clowns and sages.
For example, a sage who meddled in politics, either haphazardly (like Socrates)
or systematically (like Jeremiah) could get in very serious trouble.
To understand these limits, we need to understand universities themselves.
We are familiar with Greek seers, Hebrew prophets, and Chinese scholars
who had greater (but not unlimited) freedom to give advice, and even
rebuke their leaders.
While some clowns were mere entertainers, the great ones often gave
valuable if indirect counsel, and in some societies it was understood
that one does not retaliate against clowns.
Groups of scholars, with students, can be found wandering around in ancient
China, India, Greece, and the nations of the Middle East.
Governments supported scribes and libraries storing records, and these
evolved into quasi-academic organizations like the Egyptian priesthood.
And some groups of scholars formed groups of their own, often modelled
after religious groups: thus the Orphic Mystery cult inspired the
Pythagorean Order, which in turn inspired Plato's Academy (named for
the Greek God Academeus), which (together with the Egyptian priesthood)
inspired the world's first university, the Museum of Alexandria (named
after the Greek spirits, the Muses).
As these institutions require money and (wealthy) students, they require
not only tolerance but support from the Establishment.
This can create serious tensions.
While many great universities appeared outside Europe, from the
University of Baghdad to the Imperial University in Beijing, academic
freedom today evolved largely from European and American universities.
European universities started appearing a thousand years ago, largely
to train clergy, civil servants, business executives, and occasional
Since they served Church and Crown, the new universities won many
special liberties and protections.
Nevertheless, there were many tensions, and Church and Crown insisted
on their right to monitor and even control faculty.
The Museum was destroyed when its scholars, in particular its
outspoken director (the arithmetician & astronomer Hypatia)
became intolerable to the local religious leadership.
Hypatia was murdered, the Museum was burned, and then ordered
There is a lesson the Museum's successors have taken to heart.
Here are four famous cases.
The famous collisions concerned science, philosophy, and religion.
Some followed the appearance of Aristotilean philosophy in the then
quasi-Platonic 13th-century Europe: some scholars who taught
quasi-Aristotilean works got into serious trouble.
But the quasi-Aristotileans won, and so later, during the Renaissance,
a resurgence of Platonism led to more confrontations, the most
famous being the trial of Galileo Galilei.
There were also scholars who meddled in politics, often supporting one
party against another.
Kings and popes tended to regard universities as think tanks full of
publicists for hire, and some scholars, out of anger, idealism or
greed, were willing to oblige.
This could cause trouble trouble for a scholar, or a school, that
chose sides imprudently.
There was also the converse problem of politicians who demanded that
scholars endorse some initiative.
Most politicians preferred bribery (ahem, appointment to offices,
offering stipends, etc.) but a few used threats or even force to
get scholars to approve some declaration, and the occasional
scholar who declined would get into very hot water.
There were even scholars who tried to suppress other scholars with whom
they disagreed, either by pulling wires within academia, or even by
persuading outside authorities to intervene.
So scholars are as human as anybody else.
In the 14th century, the Fransiscan brother William of Ockham argued
very strongly for vows of poverty --- a sensitive issue at that time
--- and also for limitations of papal authority --- an unwelcome
issue at any time.
After some official expressions of displeasure, he sought the
protection of the Holy Roman Emporer, who was squabbling with the
pope at the time.
However, the Emporer died, and William was going through the machinery
of canonical law when he too died.
In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton's colleagues accused Gottfried
Liebniz of plagiarism: Liebniz had developed an alternate version
of the calculus (currently the version in the textbooks), and
some claimed that Liebniz had lifted it from Newton's work.
Publicly above the fray, Newton encouraged a campaign to ruin
Liebniz's reputation and position.
According to legend, when informed of Liebniz's death, Newton crowed,
``I have destroyed him.''
In the late Eighteenth century, the University of Jena, in Germany,
was a leading cultural and intellectual center.
In 1798, the philosopher Gottlieb Fichte published On the
Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World, and
was fired for atheism (a not entirely accurate charge) in 1799.
After Fichte left for the new University of Berlin, others started
leaving, including the dramatist (and history professor) Friedrich
Schiller, who decided to move to Weimer (near his hero Goethe) and
the philosopher Friedrich Schelling who moved to Wurzburg, along
with the legal scholar Gottlieb Hufeland and the Lutheran theologian
In its attempt to cut out a possible atheist, Jena had slashed its
own throat, and went into a deep decline.
In the mid-20th century, the agricultural researcher Trofim Lysenko
denounced Darwinism as a ``bourgeois'' theory, and persuaded the
Soviet government to embrace a more ``socialist'' theory of evolution.
Lysenko persecuted biologists who dissented, most notably the geneticist
Nikolay Vavilov, who was ultimately condemned as an Enemy of the People,
and died in the Gulag.
The universities tended to be run by scholars who disapproved of
modern science and philosophical innovation, and passively suppressed
that sort of thing.
One result was that by the Seventeenth century, much scientific research
was done in ``scientific societies'' (the most famous being the Royal
Society and the French Academy).
As late as the Eighteenth century, the new vocational schools offered
superior scientific training than the more reputable universities.
Unhappiness with the university policies towards science and unconventional
philosophy inspired several reform movements in education, including
reforms to insulate academia from political intervention and to protect
academics from one another.
The reform movements led to the founding of several universities with
strong commitments to scholarly freedom, most famously the University of
Berlin, founded 1811, dedicated to the principles of Lehrfreiheit
(the freedom to teach) and Lehrnfreiheit (the freedom to learn),
that gradually evolved into a policy of Akademische Freiheit.
The Nineteenth century was marked by the success of the Industrial
Revolution, which embarrassed even the most hide-bound universities
into not just permitting but actively sponsoring scientific research
But it was also a century of Revolution, and external authorities meddled
frequently to rid the universities of political (and still, at that late
date, religious) trouble-makers.
The first institutions of higher learning in the United States --- Harvard,
William & Mary, Yale, etc. --- evolved from sectarian institutions to
universities with limited religious toleration, and permitting free
By the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson would pledge that his new
University of Virginia would be based ``upon the illimitable freedom of
the human mind.''
The Nineteenth Century started with 25 institutions of higher learning in
the USA, which grew to 182 by 1861, but most of them were rather sectarian
and intolerant, even of science: in the first half of the Nineteenth
Century, the federally chartered West Point Academy offered the best
scientific and engineering education in the nation (which won it many
Nevertheless, this was also an era of growing collegiality: of giving
faculty a stronger voice in university governance.
After the Civil War, universities expanded: where they used to teach
teachers and ministers, they now also taught corporate middle management.
This had several consequences.
This led to more pressures for strong science curricula (especially by
fans of the scientific German universities), which was strongly
resisted by opponents of materialism and defenders of the Book of
And then, as governments shifted from sectarian to ideological concerns,
there have been external pressures on universities to discourage left-wing
economics and politics, which expanded from harassment during the 1950s
to a few spasms of outright invasion of university grounds by the government
during the 1950s and 1960s.
It was this era of multiple crises that led to the American Association
of University Professors issuing their
1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and
to the volume In Defense of Academic Freedom, edited by Sidney
Hook, with contributions by Jacques Barzun, Bruno Bettelheim, Kenneth Clark,
Henry Steele Commager, A. M. Rosenthal, John Searle, and others.
Whenever the pool of students expands, there are a lot of `non-traditional'
students that the Administration does not know how to govern.
This was an era of many scandals about unruly students, grade inflation,
declining standards, etc.
The demand for good science education, and faculty interest in science,
generated a protracted fight over ``Darwinism'' that continues even
now, with accusations of violation of academic freedom coming from all
(there are more than two) sides.
Big business has big bucks, and increasingly funds universities, whose
administrators and funded faculty may try too hard to please their
There have been several scandals of faculty who displease business ---
either by advocating reforms or by coming to inconvenient conclusions
in their research --- being disciplined or even fired.
Nevertheless, academic freedom is a principle that has limited support
outside of academia, because many people do not see why academics should
have any special rights.
One ``issue is'' the squabble between ``liberals'' and ``conservatives''
over who is more devoted to academic freedom: ``While we have always
supported academic freedom, our adversaries have taken over academia and
now violate academic freedom in order to oppress us all.''
There does not seem to be much reliable hard data on the correlation between
political conviction and academic tolerance, but anecdotal evidence
suggests that both tolerance and intolerance are both noticeable across
the political spectrum.
Perhaps non-academics should have some kind of freedom from being fired
for expressing their opinions.
There are already some protections, for whistleblowers and government
And there are good reasons for these protections.
Perhaps this should not be a special right for academics, but a general
right for everyone: but such a right would probably have to be won
by organizing unions and having the unions fight for this right.
One objection is summed up by a parent and school board member who said
that she did not want her daughter to be taught unpleasant things about
To which we can only note the functional analogy between this objection
and medical denial: it is sometimes dangerous to tastefully overlook
Besides, scholars are supposed to investigate reality as well as
One issue that has become important recently is the right of citizens
and their elected representatives to disinterested counsel on social,
scientific, and technological issues.
Wealthy corporations can hire scientists and technologists directly
(as staff) or indirectly (by setting up corporate-sponsored but
officially independent ``think tanks``) that can present reports on
environmental, economic, military, and other issues supporting their
Only a genuinely independent array of institutions, supporting the work
of a diverse community of scholars, can guarantee that all aspects of
an issue will at least be investigated and reported to the public.
Students are scholars, too, and have been targeted by unhappy professors,
administrators, alumni, politicians, etc.
There have been two problems: students who try to learn restricted
materials, and students who question (or even denounce) authority.
Student academic rights were a major issue during the 1960s, when
some high schools and universities even invited police to solve
their academic discipline problems.
(It is an issue again, with students opposing speech and courtesy codes,
and often getting support of alumni in their resistance.)
Students (like all youngsters) tend to learn by example, and this makes
systemic violation of student academic rights very dangerous for the
future of a democracy.
For more information, see The Development of Academic Freedom in the
United States, by Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger.
``This is Florida, after all ...''
The University of South Florida is probably the single greatest
human resource in the Tampa Bay area.
But Florida is a young place, populated by many immigrants (young
and old) with few roots and little sense of history.
When looking at the dispute between the USF Administration and
Sami Al-Arian, it is important to remember that this is taking
place in Florida, and that it is very much influenced by Florida's
culture and Florida's academic politics.
This is Florida, after all.
Florida is a large state, with ancient rural settlements in the
north, glitzy development in the south (and center), and a
growing high-tech component.
The most well-known institutions of higher education in Florida
are its public universities, long starved and now enduring
enormous political stresses imposed from outside.
The University of South Florida.
About four decades old, USF is one of the largest universities
in the United States.
The Faculty of USF
have endured several administrative panics, often the result
of administrators submitting to outside pressures.
The faculty have developed organizations to protect themselves
and the university.
Al-Arian at USF
Sami Al-Arian has long been a very active and outspoken academic, and
the issues he addresses are contentious ones.
He has been the target of many accusations, but thus far most accusations
have either accused him of engaging in unpleasant but lawful activities,
or have accused him of engaging in vague, non-specific, possibly illegal,
and thus far unproven activities; specific accusations were made
(at long last!) by the Federal Government on Feb. 20, 2003.
This page starts with some background on the relevant Middle Eastern
controversies, and then proceeds to the case at hand.
A clash of academics.
After the Cold War ended, concerns about the Middle East and
about terrorism inspired predictions that the West would soon
face a confrontation with Islam.
Israel and Palestine.
Once upon a time, America had romantic notions about Arabs and
sentimental notions about Israelis.
But the confrontation over the land has become a protracted
We take a close look at the organization Al-Arian is accused of
being associated with.
A nail stands up.
Sami Al-Arian is of Palestinian ancestry; he was born in Kuwait;
he grew up in Egypt; he studied and later did research in
computer engineering in America.
He also was active in politics and involved in Islamic studies,
and this latter interest brought him to the (friendly at first)
attention of USF.
The hammer descending.
In 1994 - 1995, Al-Arian's institute comes under the ferocious if
naive scrutiny of a celebrity reporter and one of the employees of
his institute turns out to be a leader of a terrorist organization.
After the events of 1995 - 1996, Al-Arian is put on leave, his
institute is shut down, and his brother-in-law placed in detention
based on shifting rationales and ultimately ``secret evidence.''
Al-Arian becomes active in the civil liberties movement.