August 18, 2013

Commentary: Believing makes it true

The political uproar over a Florida university class exercise shows the danger to education, and other institutions, now that ideology is treated as fact.

By NATALIE HOPKINSON The Root

These days, Deandre Poole spends more time than he'd like at home, staring at a computer screen, grading assignments and answering student questions for a communications course at Florida Atlantic University.

"Teaching online is a new experience," he told me recently on the phone from his home in South Florida. "It's very different than face-to-face interaction. I'm a people person."

This spring, the 33-year-old Florida native was yanked out of the state university's classroom for his own safety after getting death threats and promises he'd be "swinging by a tree."

It was just part of the fallout after a student angrily confronted him about a classroom exercise this February. By March there were breathless television reports about the student's complaint, furious letters from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and fired-up conservative Christians on the Internet.

In May, Florida Atlantic University's president resigned, citing fallout over this and other incidents.

As with the prematurely fired Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod, Poole's predicament shows that when institutions face media and political heat, increasingly the rule is: Act first, investigate later.

It's bad enough when the click-seeking media inflame anti-intellectual attitudes, such as when a Fox anchor berated a California scholar, Reza Aslan, for writing a book on Jesus when he is Muslim.

But it is even more dangerous when politicians brazenly use ideology and not facts to police public education.

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels sought to ban books written by the historian Howard Zinn. In Texas, public schools are still teaching creationism.

"People from different cultures attached different meanings to different symbols," said Poole, who holds a Ph.D. in communication and culture from Howard University. "I think most people realize the attention that I've gotten has been political in nature."

The trouble began in February when Poole used a textbook exercise developed 30 years ago by a professor at a Catholic university to teach about intercultural communication and the power of symbols.

He asked the students to write the letters J-E-S-U-S on a piece of paper. He asked them to put them on the floor.

And then asked them to step on the paper.

"Only about two students in the class actually did it," said Poole, who is a Christian. The rest of the class didn't, and they had a conversation about why, depending on your point of view, it was more than just ink on a page.

One abstaining student was Ryan Rotela, who became a devout Mormon while in prison. Rotela loudly refused to participate in the exercise while repeatedly addressing Poole as "brother" over Poole's objections. Rotela became so agitated that Poole decided to end the class early.

Rotela stayed after class and continued to confront Poole, balling up his fists, threatening violence and demanding that Poole never do the exercise again, according to a faculty-senate investigation corroborated by another student.

Poole alerted campus security and wrote an incident report about the threats.

"I did not feel comfortable with him back in the classroom," Poole said. "These days, you've got to take these things seriously."

When Rotela got a letter from the university informing him that he was being investigated for the threats to Poole in March, he contacted WPEC Channel 12 news, which ran with the story of his supposed persecution.

Several local news outlets went on air with false reports of the student being punished for refusing to do the "Jesus stomp."

Lawyers with the Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian group based in Texas, swooped in, met with the university president and demanded that the university fire Poole.

FAU President Mary Jane Saunders did not contact Poole directly before approving a message from the university apologizing for Poole's exercise and vowing to ban the exercise in the future, and promising that the student would not be punished.

Rubio piled on her apology in a letter: "No student in our state should be punished for respectfully expressing his religious and conscientious objections about a classroom activity."

Scott took the time to write a further admonishment and warning: "I am requesting a report of the incident, how it was handled and a statement of the university's policies to ensure that this type of 'lesson' will not occur again."

In June, the university released its own faculty-senate investigation of the J-E-S-U-S incident and found that the university president should not have bowed to political pressure to ban the course.

The school heard testimony from supportive students, and academic freedom was defended at on-campus rallies.

It also announced that Poole's annual contract would be renewed.

Poole's battle is far from over. A top-level administrator who investigated the incident was let go, Poole said.

For the summer he is teaching online, but he's hoping to be back in the classroom by the spring, when the university will evaluate whether it makes sense to renew his contract for a fourth year.

Several Christian activists were re-ignited over the decision to renew Poole's contract. They (and, likely, Scott and Rubio) will continue to pressure the university to fire Poole.

An FAU faculty member suggested that in the fall, the university might invite the author of the textbook and J-E-S-U-S exercise to come to campus to talk about his experiences and discuss people's objections to it.

This could be the silver lining for this whole mess.

No college-educated person should graduate without knowing how to distinguish between letters on a page and a holy war.

By continuing the dialogue, Florida can teach the public that in a civilized society, we respond to challenging ideas with reason, not force.

Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor of The Root and co-founder of the nonprofit Freshwater Project in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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