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.
- 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.