Dr. John Kelly, FAU's New President, Should Understand How Things Went So Wrong Last Year

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It's a cliché and a truism -- one FAU's new president, Dr. John Kelly, should heed.

The horrors FAU birthed in 2013 -- the GEO Group stadium naming rights deal and the "Step on Jesus" kerfuffle, primarily -- were the school's own doing. The publicly funded institution has never offered a full public accounting of its missteps, and there is no sign a full internal review has been done. Now that the school's search for a new president is over, both are in order.

See also: In Defense of FAU Instructor Deandre Poole

This is particularly true of the controversy around communications instructor Dr. Deandre Poole, whose integrity the school failed to defend, leaving him vulnerable to vilification and worse by ill-informed elements of the Christian right and the politicians who pander to them.

It is particularly true because all publicly available objective evidence in the matter weighs in favor of Poole's account of events and against the claims of his accusers.

(We've written on this before but [1] no one seems to have taken notice and [2] no other local media outlet has picked up on it. So we're going to spell it out again.)

Poole was placed on leave after a dispute arose over his February 25 communications class last year in which students were asked to step on a piece of paper with "J-E-S-U-S" written on it. According to its text, the exercise (which students were free to opt out of) "really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings."

Take them on they did: Student Ryan Rotela complained to local television that he had been suspended for objecting to the exercise. He presented himself as having voiced his objections to Poole "with all due respect." CBS 12 reporter Al Pefley's sensationalist reporting was picked up on and amplified by equally reckless national media. The political and cultural right exploded in outrage. Poole was threatened with violence. The anger abated when the school bowed to the pressure (and Gov. Rick Scott) and apologized. It banned the exercise and later, for his safety, placed Poole on leave.

Poole's year-to-year contract was later renewed (and he continues to teach at FAU). But in the interim, in early April an alarmed faculty directed its academic freedom committee (AFDPC) to investigate the affair. Its report can be found here.

See also: FAU Faculty Critique the Candidates for University President

The committee was greatly hampered by a federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which forbids colleges to disclose the contents of student records without student consent. The faculty report includes no indication Rotela cooperated. cooperation was sought. The report's description of his version of events is found in references to media reports and through a link to his attorneys' website, where they claim that Rotela had been "brought up on academic charges and suspended from class out of retaliation [italics ours] for reporting the incident to university authorities."

But according to Poole (a summary of whose interview with the committee is included in the faculty report), what happened was that Rotela interrupted the exercise and, after the class was cut short, stayed after and threatened him. Poole contacted campus security, and on March 8, Rotela received a Notice of Charges letter (included in the committee report) stating he was under investigation for violating the school's code of student conduct.

Did the school investigate Poole's allegations? The faculty report states that the Notice of Charges letter:

is consistent with a Student Affairs investigation by FAU into the alleged threatening behavior of the student, but..without access to FERPA protected documentation, [the committee] can only surmise that the investigation was dropped without being completed as political and public pressure mounted. It appears to the AFDPC that this investigation did not concern the student's refusal to participate in the exercise during class, which he was well within his rights to do. Rather, the AFDPC believes it centered entirely on alleged threats of physical violence that the student made to his professor after the class was dismissed. These allegations, if true, would constitute a clear violation of FAU's Student Code of Conduct. Indeed, had the roles been reversed, this also would have violated the standards of behavior outlined in FAU's Faculty Handbook. It is simply unacceptable for any member of the university community to threaten another as the student is alleged to have done in this case. It is not clear to the AFDPC what the ultimate outcome of the student's disciplinary process would have been, but it does seem clear that the investigation was terminated before that outcome could be rightly determined.

The committee report includes three documents that appear to support Poole's version of events:

- According to the report, a student who allegedly was present for the after-class confrontation:

emailed Dr. Poole later that same night to clarify, "I am at a loss for words regarding what happened tonight. I just wanted to make it clear that I do not share the same views as my colleague and have the utmost respect for you as a professor."

- According to the report, on April 15:

20 students [out of 23] enrolled in his Intercultural Communication course, the very people in the room that night, on their own initiative signed a petition stating that they "were not offended by any classroom activities, including the one pertaining to the "Jesus exercise."

- A June 4 email to the committee from Interim Dean Dr. Heather Coltman, reporting on her April 15 visit to Poole's two classes, stated that the students in the class in which the controversial exercise occurred were:

... animated and universal in their support for Dr. Poole and their belief that the facts of the case had been misrepresented in the media... The students spoke for nearly 30 minutes and in that time I heard nothing but unconditional support for Dr. Poole, and their sense that the student was a belligerent and continued to inflame the issue despite Dr. Poole trying to de-escalate it multiple times. Students reported the exercise was "no big deal", that they did not understand what all the controversy was about and that the actual exercise had not offended them or been forced on them. Students reported that the student had, from the earliest days of the semester, been something of [a] disruption in class often speaking out at inappropriate times and using overly informal and potentially patronizing language to other students and to Dr. Poole (calling Dr. Poole "my brother" frequently for example). As in the first class students seemed determined to convey the message that Dr. Poole had been a consummate professional and an engaging teacher and they wished to see him return to his role on the faculty.

(The committee might also have given some thought to Ryan Rotela's history of brushes with the law. Though Rotela claims it was that which set him on the path to "redemption.")

All of that is what the general public and the Christian right were unaware of or ignored. And while a mere (and accurate) report of the controversial exercise might have inflamed some, it was Rotela's claim of martyrdom that lifted the resentment into overdrive and subjected Poole to a virtual fatwa. The school's failure to fully investigate the instructor's complaint gave credence to Rotela's claims.

The GEO Group stadium naming rights deal, "Owlcatraz," also merits a postmortem. But that was chiefly a public relations disaster and a mark of the FAU Board of Trustees' political myopia. The school's mistreatment of Poole goes to the heart of the school's function -- the spirit of free inquiry.

The Academic Freedom Committee's evidence notwithstanding, it is theoretically possible that a complete investigation would support Poole's accusers. But FAU owed it to Poole to take his claim seriously and investigate it. The school failed to honor that obligation, leaving academic freedom subject to mob sentiment, with FAU complicit.

Kelly should inaugurate his administration with a search for truth. We hear it will set you free.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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