FAU Faculty Report on "Step on Jesus" Controversy, Academic Freedom: "Senior Administrators Dismally Failed"

The FAU faculty senate's academic freedom committee has released its first report on the school's "Step on Jesus" controversy of last spring. Meticulous and detailed, its conclusions are a blistering indictment of the administration of former school President Mary Jane Saunders.

See also: - In Defense of FAU Instructor Deandre Poole Posted on the faculty senate's website more than two weeks ago, the report has lain dormant there, unannounced by FAU's administrators, like a postmortem in a cold case whose perpetrators would rather it be forgotten. Newly disclosed information in the report offers strong support for the cause of the instructor at the center of the affair, Dr. Deandre Poole, and casts doubt on his accusers.

Poole was placed on leave after a dispute arose over his February 25 communications class 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: One student complained to the media that he had been suspended for objecting to the exercise. 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 recently renewed. But in the interim, in early April an alarmed faculty directed its academic freedom committee to:

a) Ascertain if in fact there is an FAU ban on the exercise and the textbook. b) Ascertain what person[s] effected the ban. c) Ascertain how much information the affected department had about the banning process. d) Reach a judgment as to whether academic freedom has been breached and, if so, to what extent. e) If it is determined that there has been a breach, try to reach an agreement [see constitution] as to how to ameliorate the breach and how to avoid repetitions as similar situations may arise in the future.

The faculty investigation 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 the complaining student's consent was sought. The report's only description of his version of events is found in a description of TV news reports and in a link to a statement from his attorneys.

According to Poole (a summary of whose interview with the committee is included in the faculty report), the student interrupted the exercise and, after the class was cut short, stayed after and threatened him. Poole contacted campus security, and on March 8, the student 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, with a hearing set for March 15.

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 FERPA laws have prevented the AFDPC examining any other documents pertinent to such an investigation. In any event, the Committee has no knowledge whatsoever of any Student Affairs investigation into any student's refusal to participate in the exercise.

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 details of what happened in the classroom encounter are of only secondary interest to the faculty committee. Their chief concern is how the totality of FAU administration's actions in the case impacted academic freedom -- that of Poole, his students, and the school as a whole.

For Poole, the committee found that while the "ban" of the classroom exercise was not enforceable, because it was an impermissible exercise of authority by Saunders and FAU Senior Vice President Dr. Charles Brown (Saunders told the committee, in essence, the "ban" was only a PR move) it was still:

a de facto breach of academic freedom, insofar as an untenured instructor, in this case Dr. Poole, would be reluctant to contravene the public pronouncements of the university president.

For the students, the committee found that:

instructions for the exercise provide procedures for student consent to participate that are consistent with professional norms in his field. We find no evidence that the exercise was intended to discriminate against any religious group.

For the school as a whole, the committee found:

The administrative response to outside pressures did create an atmosphere of suspicion among faculty that the administration, the Board of Trustees, and elected public officials may have compromised academic freedom. Culpability for this result primarily rests with FAU senior administrators. Due to their failure to articulate a reasonable defense of academic freedom and in a timely manner effectively process Dr. Poole's complaint alleging student misconduct, senior administrators dismally failed. Furthermore, the fact that Dr. Poole's complaint was not fully processed by Student Affairs may result in a lack of confidence on the part of faculty that alleged student misconduct will be appropriately processed, thereby increasing the possibility that complaints which should be will not be filed. This result is not conducive toward a healthy and safe learning environment for students and faculty. Academic freedom will not prosper in such an environment.

Describing their report as "the beginning of an ongoing dialogue to address issues of academic freedom and academic responsibility within the FAU community," the committee has promised to issue follow-up reports in the course of the 2013-14 academic year.

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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