Around the State- Southwest/ Tampa Bay- May 2002
Will the furor over a controversial Palestinian professor hurt recruitment and fund raising at USF?
By Amy Welch
Less than two years into her job as president of the University of South Florida, Judy Genshaft has had a tumultuous tenure. Just as she arrived, several former USF women's basketball players filed racial discrimination suits against the school and coach Jerry Ann Winters, leading to Winters' firing and the resignation of the school's athletic director. Genshaft's handling of the situation won her praise, but the university's refusal to admit wrongdoing also generated criticism.
Genshaft now faces a much dicier personnel matter: Her decision whether to fire tenured engineering professor Sami Al Arian could hurt both Genshaft's career and the university's reputation.
Al Arian, a Palestinian, once headed a think tank at USF; an official of that organization returned to the Middle East as the head of the Islamic Jihad, a radical anti-Israeli terrorist group. And recently, a former federal prosecutor sued Al Arian for allegedly funneling cash through his think tank to terrorist groups. Al Arian denies any terrorist involvement. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Arian appeared on the Fox network cable program The O'Reilly Factor, where host Bill O'Reilly grilled him about his previous caustic rhetoric.
Following that appearance, Genshaft suspended Al Arian for violating terms of his contract by associating himself with the school while speaking on controversial issues on national TV and later for appearing on campus after his suspension. Genshaft has announced plans to fire Al Arian, and the school's board of trustees has voted 12-1 to support her.
The prospect of Al Arian's dismissal has angered professors, who say firing him would violate academic freedom. The faculty union has threatened to sue. If Genshaft "goes through with the firing, she will never be the president of a great university" because quality professors will not want to work for her, says Roy Weatherford, president of USF's faculty union.
A national academic freedom watchdog group also may censure USF.
If Genshaft reverses course, however, she could put herself at odds with both the trustees and with financial supporters of USF, who support firing Al Arian. Framing the issue purely as one of academic freedom is too simplistic, Genshaft says. "I think this is such a different case.'' Her detractors, she adds, "are generalizing it."
Genshaft seems determined to stand by her intentions to fire Al Arian. For now, she is trying to focus on fighting for funding equity for Florida's 11 universities; expanding the university's research incubator; and working with local businesses to turn research efforts into royalties.
To help her through, Genshaft is relying on advice from another university president: "Never mistake the loudness of a few people for the breadth of your support."
In the News
Clearwater -- SCI International has launched a new product to help trucking and fleet companies curb fraud at the fuel pump and save money. SmartFuel, a wireless fuel management system, sends out radio signals to vehicle gas tanks and fuel pumps to ensure that fuel will only flow when the correct nozzle is used for the right tank by the right driver. If drivers try to fill a car tank, for example, the technology shuts down the pump. Fleet companies using SmartFuel say they have reduced their fuel costs by up to 25%. And SCI has seen its sales double for the first three months of 2002.
Fort Myers -- Alanda Ltd. bought 2,500 acres in Estero for $29 million from Agri-Insurance Co., a subsidiary of LaBelle-based Alico. The company plans to create a technology research park in partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University. NeoGenomics (OTCBB-NOGN.OB), based in Naples, will be the first tenant.
The Lee County Port Authority has approved the construction of the largest public works project in southwest Florida. The Midfield Terminal Complex at Southwest Florida International Airport -- a 10,000-acre, $386-million project -- will include a two-story, 28-gate terminal, a new taxiway and roadways. The authority will also preserve 7,000 acres of wetlands adjacent to the airport.
Lakeland -- The Center for Cancer Care and Research is scheduled to open in early 2003. The 38,000-sq.-ft. facility will be affiliated with the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.
Pinellas County -- The number of visitors to Pinellas County increased by 26,021 in 2001, despite Sept. 11 and the economic slowdown, according to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The economic impact of the visitors increased by about $126 million.
County commissioners approved an incentives package to keep Nielsen Media Research from moving its 2,000 local employees to Atlanta. Nielsen plans to move most of its operations from Dunedin to a 39-acre, $119-million corporate campus in Oldsmar. The incentives package is based on job creation and pays the company $500 for each job paying 150% of the county's average wage of about $28,000 a year and $1,000 for each job paying 200% over the average wage.
Tampa -- Davel Communications (OTCBB-DAVL.OB) and PhoneTel Technologies, the nation's two leading independent pay phone service providers, have merged. PhoneTel will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Davel.
Voters Pass Property Tax Referendum
SARASOTA -- Two years ago, voters in Sarasota County disappointed teachers and educational leaders when they voted down a referendum to increase property taxes to help local schools. But in March, those same voters overwhelmingly passed a similar referendum increasing their property taxes by 1 mil -- or $1 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
Why the change of heart? Last year, business leaders formed Citizens for Better Schools, a grass-roots group that sent members to more than 300 events to explain why the schools needed the money, which amounts to about $25 million a year for four years.
Carl Weinrich, who co-founded the campaign, says senior citizens in the county had the biggest impact on passing the referendum. "They appreciated education when they were younger, and they appreciate it now." The county's median age is 50.5. First-year superintendent of the county, Wilma Hamilton, says that the money will help save programs. "Now we can maintain our current class size ... our after-school programs, art and music classes and provide a 3% cost-of-living adjustment for educators."