In the case of Deandre Poole, Florida Atlantic University apparently has failed not just a faculty member but academic freedom.
When FAU student Ryan Rotela went to WPEC-Channel 12 with the story of how Dr. Poole on March 4 asked those in his intercultural communications class to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it, FAU correctly defended the exercise. “Faculty and students at academic institutions pursue knowledge and engage in open discourse,” said FAU’s statement. “While at times the topics discussed may be sensitive, a university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate.”
Then critics accused Dr. Poole of being anti-Christian. So FAU caved. The university issued a general apology for the “Jesus” exercise and dumped it from the curriculum. Mr. Rotela got a personal apology from the dean of students. And last week FAU put Dr. Poole, who has received hate mail and death threats, on paid leave “for safety reasons.”
As it turns out, however, Dr. Poole may be the one who deserves an apology. During a 90-minute interview Wednesday with The Palm Beach Post, Dr. Poole told his side of what happened at FAU’s Davie campus.
After Dr. Poole ended the class at 9 p.m., he said, Mr. Rotela approached him, smacking the fist of one hand into the open palm of the other, saying: “I want to hit you. How dare you disrespect someone’s religion. If you ever do that again I’m going to go to the media…Don’t you ever do that again. Do you hear me?” Mr. Rotela’s attorney, Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute, described the encounter similarly.
Dr. Poole called security. The university notified Mr. Rotela that he had been charged with violating the university’s code of conduct and prohibited him from attending Dr. Poole’s class.
If you wonder what’s happened since then, so does Dr. Poole. He didn’t ask for the leave. Despite the threats, he said, he would rather FAU provide security so he can finish teaching his classes. Dr. Poole learned about the decision on the “Jesus” exercise from the media, not FAU. Nor did FAU tell Dr. Poole about the apology to Mr. Rotela.
“It’s hurtful,” Dr. Poole said. “It was a slap in my face, because it’s as if I did not matter because I’m this non-tenured earning instructor on an annual contract.”
Dr. Poole said the “Jesus” exercise is designed to teach students about the power of words and symbols. As a practicing Christian, he said, he understands the significance of the name “Jesus.” When Mr. Rotela refused to participate, Dr. Poole correctly told him that he didn’t have to, and continued the activity with the other students. As expected, only a few stepped on their papers, and Mr. Poole led a discussion about why.
Asked if would do the exercise, Dr. Poole said, “I wouldn’t step on (the paper) because the name ‘Jesus’ to me has symbolic value. Jesus to me is my lord, my savior. I identify with that name and I just wouldn’t.”
He acknowledged that the exercise is “sensitive and emotional” — everyone is free to debate its quality — but proper for a college course. “It was an exercise that was in no way to disrespect Christianity,” he said. “It is an activity that in a college classroom…we have to be able to have these kinds of conversations. Religion, race, ethnicity, sexism, racism, discrimination. These are all things that we talk about.”
Based on what is known, Dr. Poole should be retained as an instructor, and FAU has embarrassed itself. Again.
for The Post Editorial Board