Suspension and Censorship
It’s not Deandre Poole’s year.
The Davie-based intercultural communications instructor made national headlines earlier this month and aroused public criticism for a classroom exercise involving students writing the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and stepping on it. After Mormon student Ryan Rotela refused to step, allegedly told Poole he “wanted to hit him,” and was suspended, the incident went viral
Last week, Reverend Mark D. Boykin, a 25-year active Christian from the Church of All Nations, organized a march from the church on Fourth Avenue, down Glades Road and into the main entrance of the Boca campus.
“That would be taking the most precious part of our faith, and stomping on the image of his name. Imagine if you were to do that in other religions. In Saudi Arabia, they would string you up,” Boykin said of the now controversial assignment. “I’m saying if they had picked Mohammed, there would have been an international incident.”
Carl Silverstein, a Deerfield Beach resident and member of the Tea Party Fort Lauderdale, waved a sign with “Deandre Poole: Lay down so we can stomp on you,” among at least fifty other protesters.
Silverstein was grateful that so many people showed up.
“I just wanted to turn it around. How would you feel if someone told you to lay down and be stomped on? It’s symbolic. I meant it rhetorically or symbolically … I wouldn’t kick someone’s face unless I had to,” Silverstein said. “I’m so gratified people came and took time out of their lives.”
The protesters marched amid a tornado watch, according to the National Weather Service.
Although university officials originally suspended Rotela, silenced Poole and defended his right to academic freedom, the non-tenured professor on a one-year contract has since been placed on administrative leave, for safety reasons, according to the message that appears on his FAU bio page:
“In addition, this decision will prevent further disruption to the day-to-day operations of Florida Atlantic University.
Because of this, Dr. Poole will not teach any classes, conduct office hours, or be present at any of FAU’s campuses or sites. Alternate instructors have been assigned to teach Dr. Poole’s classes. Students have been notified and classes will continue as scheduled.”
Boykin has a belief for Poole’s contract too: “I do not believe it should be renewed. In fact, I believe he should be terminated.” He blames the administration for mismanaging the issue. “It seems to me we have an administration that only wants to respond when they are caught or when there is a public outcry with more and more frequency on these particular issues.”
Poole has since received death threats and hate mail, according to InsideHigherEd, a daily online publication who spoke with Poole.
“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,” Poole said about being placed on administrative leave. He also told the Post he would not have stepped on the paper himself. “Jesus to me is my lord, my savior. I identify with that name and I just wouldn’t.”
Dr. Charles Brown, the university’s vice president of Student Affairs, issued a video apology shortly after the incident, clarifying the administration’s reversed position
“As an institution of higher education, we embrace academic freedom,” Brown told the FAU community. “But with that comes a level of responsibility, which we did not uphold. Based on the offensive nature of this exercise, we will not use it again. It was insensitive and hurtful, and we are truly sorry.”
Brown also clarified in the video that Ryan Rotela was not suspended. A March 8 letter from Davie Student Affairs Administrator Rozalia Williams, however, charged Rotela with violating Regulation 4.007 of the Code of Student Conduct, specifically, Section 5 Letter N: (n) “Acts of verbal, written (including electronic communications or internet activity) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion, or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person.”
Rotela declined to be interviewed for this story. Yet he challenged Poole to “Go on the television with me and take it once again to the court of public opinion,” in an April 1 Facebook status.
Chris Robé, president of the FAU chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, a faculty union, issued a statement, explaining claiming the university made the decision to ban the lesson without consulting any faculty or staff:
“We find it outrageous that critics of Dr. Poole immediately condemn his exercise without fully knowing the facts. When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry.
If Dr. Poole is dismissed from his teaching position for this incident, more is lost than simply a stellar instructor who has routinely received high praise from his students and supervisors. Also lost will be the good faith of the faculty who placed their trust in an administration to defend the academic freedom that defines the university. Lost will be freedom of speech in the classroom to “present and discuss academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship,” as is enshrined in our collective bargaining agreement. Lost will be the future scholars who will no longer want to work at an institution whose credibility has been tarnished. Lost will be the current scholars who leave our institution for others that respect academic freedom.
It is time to defend academic freedom through the maelstrom of uninformed attacks since the controversy will eventually pass but the institution will remain. And the type of institution that remains will largely depend upon whether the core principles of academic freedom are preserved or not.”
Poole’s assignment came from a textbook written by a Christian scholar, according to the Broward New Times.
Petitions and Philosophy
The “Jesus stomping” incident, as it has come to be known, also resulted in online petitions by Causes.com, the Christian Defence League and U.S. Constitutional Free Press to have Poole fired for reportedly forcing the students to stomp on the pieces of paper. As of publication time, the most popular petition had been shared more than 2,661 times, with more than 990 responses.
And although the UP attempted to contact Poole for comment, he has not responded to messages as of publication time.
He has, however, since broken his silence to InsideHigherEd to clarify that he had used the assignment before, did not expect a negative reaction this semester, and never forced students to stomp or used the word “stomp” in describing the assignment.
Student leaders from neutral religious organizations on-campus, the Secular Students at FAU and Interfaith Programming, have responded to the controversy.
“Initially I was in support of the teacher, but if [Rotela]‘s story is, in fact, true, and he was disciplined for refusing to take part, then the teacher made a huge mistake and needs to be punished for it,” Nathan Hevenstone of Secular Students said. “If the student lied, I hope he’s punished for it. It all depends on what the truth is.”
Interfaith Programming, Student Government’s newest Boca Executive branch, was created “to enrich spiritual unity through interfaith programming and present and emphasize spiritual achievements on the Boca Raton Campus,” according to SG’s website.
Anthony Santos, director of Interfaith Programming told the UP in an email:
“I believe that the ‘Jesus stomping’ incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding. After reviewing the story that is my take. In my opinion, the professor perhaps did not fully explain the concept of the activity which caused the student to be confused. However, threatening a professor, if that truly was the case, is inappropriate. I think that the issue could have been handled in a way that provoked less controversy. This has sparked more fire than what it should have in the first place and that in itself is unfortunate. I believe FAU handled the incident as it should. They reviewed both sides of the story and made a decision based on that..”
Caitlin Siciliano, a junior accounting major who observed the protest, agreed with Boykin about Poole’s assignment. “I think it’s unfair, they’re disrespecting Jesus, because we’re a campus that respects all people.”
[Sarah Pruzansky and Donovan Bertch contributed reporting to this article.]