FAU faculty report: ‘Jesus’ exercise ban compromises academic freedom

Updated April 19, 2013

A faculty committee at Florida Atlantic University has made a preliminary finding that academic freedom was compromised when the school banned a controversial classroom exercise that asked students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and step on it.

The finding was read during a packed FAU Faculty Senate meeting Friday in which University President Mary Jane Saunders and Provost Brenda Claiborne voiced support for academic freedom but said they couldn’t answer specific questions about the “Jesus” exercise and the instructor who led it.

While teaching an intercultural communications class in February, instructor Deandre Poole followed the manual for a popular textbook, which said the “Jesus” exercise was intended to teach students that “even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”

FAU initially defended the exercise when a student went to a local TV station with complaints about it. But when a national uproar ensued, FAU administrators apologized for it and ordered it removed from its curriculum without consulting faculty. Poole, a Christian who said he wouldn’t have stepped on the paper if he had been asked, received hate mail and death threats and was placed on administrative leave with pay because of concerns for his safety.

Gov. Rick Scott criticized the exercise and asked the head of the state university system for a report on it and “a statement of the university’s policies to ensure this type of ‘lesson’ will not occur again.”

In addition to that report, a faculty committee is expected to make a report on the incident in the fall.

“The committee’s preliminary finding is that there are are sufficient grounds for concluding that academic freedom has been compromised. Due diligence requires additional time for the faculty to gather and process all the pertinent facts prior to submitting a final report,” said a statement read at Friday’s Senate meeting.

Chris Robe, the head of the faculty union at FAU, asked Claiborne directly about Poole, who has not been told whether his year-to-year contract is being renewed.

“What we need to hear now publicly and on the record is that you say you support Dr. Deandre Poole and his job will not be jeopardized because of this exercise. Anything short of that is insufficient to us,” Robe said.

Claiborne, who earlier had spoken about supporting academic freedom, said: “I’ve stated my position. I think the Senate committee is looking into the particular exercise and I’m going to wait on that.”

Saunders gave a similar answer later: “I want to honor the process you’ve put into place to have the Senate convene their committee on academic freedom and we’ll let that committee do its work, its due diligence and have hopefully a resolution of this issue.”

Saunders began her remarks to faculty by acknowledging 2013 has been “a tough year for all of us.”

In addition to the “Jesus” controversy, the school was rocked by criticism for accepting private prison contractor GEO Group’s $6 million donation to have its name on FAU’s football stadium. GEO Group later withdrew the gift. FAU also distanced itself from a professor who got national attention for questioning on his personal website “whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”