About 60 demonstrators on Tuesday accused Florida Atlantic University administrators of abandoning academic freedom when they apologized for and abandoned a controversial classroom exercise in which students were asked to write Jesus’ name on a piece of paper and step on it.
Accompanied by a guitarist and hand-lettered placards, a group of faculty, students and others rallied outside the FAU administration building to show support for Deandre Poole, the instructor who followed a textbook guide and conducted the “Jesus” exercise in an intercultural communications class to demonstrate the power of words as symbols.
A student’s complaint about the lesson ignited a national firestorm in which FAU initially defended the classroom activity, but then reversed course and removed it from its curriculum without consulting Poole or faculty.
Gov. Rick Scott wants a report on the matter from the state university system and has said he wants to make sure the exercise isn’t repeated.
Demonstrators accused Scott and FAU administrators of meddling in the classroom. They also urged FAU to retain Poole, who teaches on a year-to-year contract that expires next month. Poole has been placed on administrative leave with pay for his safety after receiving hate mail and threats.
Poole, who has called himself a “very religious” Christian, said the activity was not meant to denigrate Christianity but to spur discussion. He did not attend the rally but sent a statement thanking the demonstrators.
Student Gabi Aleksinko led demonstrators in a version of the disputed classroom exercise, handing out paper and pens and asking them to write “something important to you” on a piece of paper and place it on the ground. She then asked participants to step on the word they had written. Some did; others did not.
Christopher Robe, a communications professor who heads the FAU faculty union, called on administrators to issue a statement affirming academic freedom and “admit they made a mistake” in responding to the controversy.
“The one thing I thought students, faculty and administration could agree on is academic freedom,” said Robe. “The fact that we have to come out here and do this is a deep betrayal.”
The ACLU of Florida said in a statement that FAU “seemed to be caving in to political pressure rather than protecting the integrity of the classroom from outside forces. The university should not be letting politicians, including Gov. Scott, intimidate or interfere with what happens in the classroom.”
FAU responded Tuesday with a statement that says the university “embraces open discourse across its campuses and values its public mission as a venue for free expression…We will to work with the FAU faculty and staff to address sensitive and controversial subjects, while upholding freedom of expression. A university campus is the best place for discussions of differing opinions.”