After months of missteps, Florida Atlantic University finally got one right last week when it renewed Deandre Poole’s teaching contract and decided against expunging his “Step on Jesus” exercise from the curriculum.
FAU suspended Dr. Poole this spring, supposedly for his safety, after the instructor received death threats and hate mail for asking students to step on a piece of paper on which they had written “J-E-S-U-S.” The exercise, from an intercultural communications textbook, is designed to teach students the importance of symbols in culture. One student, Ryan Rotela, went to WPEC-Channel 12, complaining that he felt offended. FAU had suspended the student from Dr. Poole’s class after he allegedly threatened the instructor over the exercise.
FAU initially stood by Dr. Poole, calling the exercise appropriate for a higher education setting. Once the story got hot, the administration caved. Mr. Rotela got an apology and special accommodations to complete the class, and the university said it would ditch the “Jesus” exercise.
Heather Coltman, interim dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts & Letters, said the director of the communications department recommended that Dr. Poole’s contract be renewed, and noted that he has the support of his colleagues. She also received a petition supporting him signed by 20 students in the class.
“The students conveyed to me their great respect for Dr. Poole,” Dr. Coltman said, “and the fact that they felt his class was very engaging and very important…” She hopes those who consider the “Jesus” incident offensive will understand that it is “a very valid academic exercise.”
Dr. Poole, who will teach his summer and fall classes online, will decide whether to use the exercise after consulting with his colleagues. He may choose a different textbook. “I feel ecstatic to be back at work full time again,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to getting more of my story out about what happened. I think I need to put more of a human face out there, let people get to know who I am and not allow that situation that happened in the classroom to define me as an individual.”
When the controversy broke, Gov. Rick Scott demanded a report from the Board of Governors. Not surprisingly, the report is still in the works. We have left it to others to debate the “Jesus” exercise. It was never, however, cause for Dr. Poole to lose his job. The decision to retain him at last offers FAU students a good lesson.
for The Post Editorial Board