St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said the university will continue to hold its B. magazine profile of alumnus Ali Al-Ahmed.
Al-Ahmed went to the Associated Press on Sept. 25 with claims that the Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas president, blocked the Opus College of Business’ magazine from running a profile of him out of concern that it would harm efforts to recruit Saudi students.
Al-Ahmed, 42, who earned his master’s in international management from St. Thomas in 2005, is director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., which describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank on Mideast and Islamic issues
The profile included Al-Ahmed’s views on the Saudi Arabian government and the assertion that he was arrested by the government and jailed for more than a month as a teenager, without any official charges or explanation.
According to Al-Ahmed, he received an e-mail on Sept. 23 from St. Thomas’ publications director Brian Brown that said the story was being held from print indefinitely.
Al-Ahmed brought the story to the Associated Press a few days later because he said he felt that taking the issue to the university “would not have made a difference.”
“I realized that the best way is to just put it out there,” said Al-Ahmed. “This is a public issue … Jeopardizing the ethical standards and the academic freedom of the university is a very serious matter. It should not be allowed to just pass without strong scrutiny.”
Hennes denied that Dease killed the story and said that the article is being held back as a matter of journalistic fairness.
“We simply felt we needed to give the Saudi government an opportunity to respond to the allegations that he had made, at least offer their perspective on how they deal with political protesters,” Hennes said.
According to both Hennes and Al-Ahmed, the article’s author contacted the Saudi embassy by e-mail and phone to no avail.
“He did not receive a call back,” Hennes said. “At that stage, given where we were with deadlines and everything for our magazine, we decided to continue to hold the story.”
Al-Ahmed said the article needs to be printed in spite of Saudi officials’ unwillingness to speak.
“You can’t freeze the story because one side doesn’t want to [talk],” Al-Ahmed said. “Newspapers are full of stories where the other side doesn’t want to speak or the other side doesn’t want to participate.”
“It shows that the academic freedom in this country is now subject to influence by a medieval government like Saudi Arabia,” Al-Ahmed said. “I think maintaining the university with respect, honor and standards is much more important than getting 20 more students from Saudi Arabia.”
Hennes denied that the decision to hold the article was in any way affected by the university’s relationship with Saudi officials.
“Al-Ahmed’s allegation that Father Dease blocked the magazine from running a profile over concern that it would harm efforts to recruit Saudi students, we would dispute that,” Hennes said. “We didn’t kill the story, the story wasn’t canceled. We simply didn’t feel it was ready to be published at this time.”
Hennes added that Dease does not have a formal working relationship with the Saudi government, but that the president has tried to establish “some lines of communication.”
“We are not actively recruiting students,” Hennes said. “But as more Saudi students have come to St. Thomas, we have taken steps to make sure that the Saudi government is aware of that.”
Sixty-two Saudi students are taking classes on campus this semester, Hennes said. Twenty-seven are St. Thomas students, and 35 are ELS Language Centers students taking English language courses.
Hennes said that the university has no immediate plans for the article, and it has not yet discussed what will happen if the Saudi government decides to comment on the contents of the profile.
“At this point we’ve felt that we’re not ready to run the story,” Hennes said. “We haven’t sat down and talked about next steps.”
Hennes is St. Thomas’ only official spokesperson on the matter. Opus dean Chris Puto and Brown were contacted by TommieMedia but declined to comment.
According to CBS News, Al-Ahmed discovered the U. S. government’s botched translation of the infamous post-9/11 videotape featuring Osama bin Laden and also discovered the videotaped murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Al-Ahmed graduated from Winona State University 1996, earning a degree in journalism. He said he was granted political asylum in 1998 while earning his graduate degree at St. Thomas. Saudi officials revoked Al-Ahmed’s passport in 2004 – a mere formality, he said, for what he has known for much of his life – he can never return to Saudi Arabia without the threat of arrest and imprisonment.
“St. Thomas is my home, I’m a Tommie and I’m proud of it,” Al-Ahmed said. “I’m doing it because I know other alums would also be supporting this and other students that are currently [at St. Thomas] would not accept that their voice would be silenced.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Brent Fischer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org