(Photo: Facebook/Florida Atlantic University)
A Florida professor, who drew widespread criticism after telling his students to step on a piece of paper with Jesus written on it, said he believes in Jesus as his lord and savior, but his institution should not bar the use of the exercise, which is part of a textbook, just because it's offensive.
"I am very religious," Prof Deandre Poole of the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, days after the institution put him on administrative leave last Friday. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It's how I identify myself as a Christian."
Poole, who in his intercultural communications class last month allegedly told his students to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and then to step on it, added he has been connected to churches all of his life, and has served as a Sunday school teacher.
The professor stressed that he was simply following the directions from the instructor's guide to a popular textbook, Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition, used by FAU and other schools for three decades. He added he never told anyone to "stomp on Jesus," as media have reported, but asked students to step on the piece of paper.
Only one student objected to it, Poole said. The student, Ryan Rotela, a junior at FAU, told the media last month he was suspended for refusing to participate in the assignment.
Poole denied Rotela's version of the story.
Rotela said repeatedly, "How dare you disrespect someone's religion?" After class, the student came up to the professor, and made that statement again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that "he wanted to hit me," said Poole, who notified campus security and filed a report on the student. And that's why Rotela briefly faced disciplinary action, Poole added.
Rotela's lawyer, Hiram Sasser, strongly denied this, and said that charge was a pretext to punish his client.
Poole said the objective of the exercise is not to have students actually step on Jesus, but that most will pause and that their discomfort sets off the discussion. However, he added, he saw at least one student who did step on the paper without feeling much of a connection to Jesus. No student, the professor said, was forced to do anything.
Poole also talked about threats he has received, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. "I wake up in the morning not knowing what the day is going to bring…. One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree… My safety has been in question. There are churches that want to march against me. There are people calling on the university to fire me," he said. "And it's all for doing my job. I was doing my job."
Last week, FAU released a statement apologizing for the incident and promising that such a class exercise would never be performed again.
Asked if his university had defended his academic freedom, Poole replied in the negative, pointing to FAU barring the use of an exercise because it was offensive to some people. "I think as a matter of academic freedom, professors should have leeway in how they present materials to their students, especially in any intercultural classroom," he said.
Poole is a member of Lighthouse Worship Center Church of God in Christ, Fort Lauderdale, where he belongs to the congregation's usher board. While Poole is part of the leadership of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, the organization's website has apparently recently removed his profile from their officers' page.
Florida's governor and numerous other politicians have denounced the lesson.