According to the logic of a recent report issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), denying accused criminals a job constitutes an unethical breach of "academic freedom." So, if Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had doctorates and respectable publication records, could they receive teaching positions at an American university? More to the point, what about Mohammed Yousry, an adjunct lecturer in Middle East studies at York College of the City University of New York (CUNY), a person accused of providing material support to a terrorist organization?
After all, in America's criminal justice system, alleged offenders are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law – and bin Laden and Hussein have yet to receive fair and open trials. Until then, if their academic records were otherwise sterling, a university may not penalize professors on grounds ostensibly unrelated to their scholarship or teaching. Such grounds, according to the reasoning of the AAUP report, include alleged support of a terrorist organization aiming to slaughter the very students the professor teaches.
The AAUP issued its report following Yousry's federal indictment in April 2002. He served as the translator for attorney Lynne Stewart and her former client Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in October 1995 of masterminding the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and of plotting to bomb other New York City landmarks, including the United Nations, New York's FBI building, and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.
Presently serving a sentence of life imprisonment, Abdel Rahman was the leader of the Islamic Group (IG), or al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, a terrorist organization based in Egypt seeking to destroy Israel and America and to overthrow the Egyptian government and replace it with a more Islamic state. According to federal prosecutors, Abdel Rahman once released a statement from prison, in reference to America, calling upon "Muslims everywhere" to "dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, and shoot down their planes, kill them on land, at sea, and in the air." On November 17, 1997, six terrorists affiliated with the IG murdered fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, Egypt, hoping to pressure the American government to release Abdel Rahman.
In 2002 Yousry and Stewart were charged with knowingly transmitting violent statements of Abdel Rahman to his followers worldwide. In so doing, they violated Special Administrative Measures (SAM) instituted by the Bureau of Prisons that limited Abdel Rahman's access to the media in order to prevent him from addressing his terrorist followers. But in September 1999, with the help of Yousry and Stewart, Abdel Rahman issued a statement from prison ordering the IG to end its previously declared cease-fire against the Egyptian government after Egyptian officials conducted a raid in Cairo that resulted in the deaths of four IG members.
Yousry and Stewart were convicted in February 2005 on all counts, including conspiracy, defrauding the government, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. They are presently free on bail pending their sentencing in July.
What, then, raised the ire of the AAUP? When news of the indictment became known, CUNY administrators responded by suspending Yousry with pay for the duration of the spring 2002 term. CUNY then effectively fired him by declining to reappoint him to teach as an adjunct in subsequent semesters
According to the AAUP report, entitled "Academic Freedom and Tenure: City University of New York," in terminating Yousry, CUNY administrators violated a host of procedures regarding due process, faculty peer review, and open communication that govern the appointment of adjunct instructors in academia, an allegation the university denied. Such charges are common in academic life and are not especially notable. What makes the AAUP report remarkable, however, is the extent to which it also defines "academic freedom" to include the right of professors to retain their positions even as they are being investigated for supporting terrorism. "Adequate cause for a dismissal," says the report, "will be related, directly and substantially, to the fitness of faculty members in their professional capacities as teachers or researchers" – not, evidently, as human beings who do not support bloodthirsty killers. The AAUP then went on to reject "the theory of teacher-as-role-model" as having "scant purpose" in university life:
"There are… moral lacunae, flaws in character, that have no bearing on fitness for academic authority. There is no obvious connection, for example, between being a shoplifter, even a persistent criminal petty larcenist, and being a professor of poetry (even though such a person would clearly be a bad role model for any students who might be led to emulate his extramural behavior)."
The AAUP thus effectively compares support of an organization dedicated to mass murder to shoplifting or petty larceny. In its devastating response to the AAUP, the CUNY administration trenchantly attacked the report's absurd implication that "academic freedom" mandates the employment of terrorists: "Under the AAUP standard, it is doubtful that a college or university could dismiss a faculty member who committed murder or rape, sexually abused young children, engaged in massive fraud or participated in the sale and distribution of narcotics, at least as long as the victims were not other faculty members or students and the crime was not committed on campus."
"An indictment is not a conviction," the AAUP report correctly insists. And indeed, until his conviction last February, it would have been appropriate to give Yousry the benefit of the doubt. But the absence of a conviction does not imply the absence of a threat. Before the jury reached its verdict, the AAUP effectively denied the right of CUNY administrators to pay any attention to the trial, essentially telling them to discard the very real possibility that a terrorist supporter may be roaming their halls.
If Yousry had been indicted for parking violations, it would certainly be imprudent for the university to fire him. However, an indictment for supporting terrorism and defrauding the government is not trivial – it directly relates to the physical safety of the members of the university Yousry presumably serves. No university, for the sake of "academic freedom," should have to take the risk of employing such an individual unless and until it knows for certain that he posed no threat to the institution as a whole. And pending the outcome of the trial, which did not end until nearly three years after the date of the original indictment, CUNY could not have assurance of this.
Ironically, the AAUP must have realized the legitimacy of such concerns – why else would it devote several passages of its report to denying the actual legal charges against Yousry? "For some reason," CUNY stated in its response, "the Investigating Committee [of the AAUP] finds it appropriate not merely to note that Mr. Yousry has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges against him, but to provide him with a forum to set forth the substance of his defense." Notably, the AAUP refrains from discussing the mountain of evidence that supports the charges in Yousry's indictment. In so doing, the AAUP goes beyond its organizational mandate and assumes the responsibility of defending professors accused of supporting terrorism.
Nor is this the first time the AAUP has shown an indifference to terrorism charges. University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, accused of being a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is now starting his trial. In that case as well, the AAUP cast the matter as one of "academic freedom," ignored the evidence against Al-Arian as mere "extramural activities," and demanded that the university restore him to his position.
By defining "academic freedom" to include the "freedom" of professors facing federal prosecution for supporting terrorism to remain in the classroom, the AAUP implicitly asserts that the "academic freedom" of faculty is more sacrosanct, more inviolable, than the contrasting "academic freedom" of students to receive an education from teachers who don't wish to see them dead.
In terminating Yousry, CUNY acted with prudence and forethought, eliminating a potential threat to the university's safety and credibility as an institution of higher learning untainted by faculty members who support Islamic extremists. In defending Yousry, the AAUP has undermined its own integrity as a protector of faculty rights, defining and applying the concept of "academic freedom" so expansively, to the exclusion of any other values, as to render it meaningless.
Tzvi Kahn wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.