Deandre Poole, the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) professor who allegedly told his students to “stomp on Jesus,” said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that he was just doing his job. He also says he’s a Christian who understands the uproar his assignment caused, even as he defends it.
During a recent lesson in his communications class, Poole instructed students to step on a piece of paper with Jesus’ name on it. Those instructions, Poole explained, were part of a lesson plan detailed in the instructor’s guide to the Intercultural Communications textbook.
He claimed the exercise was supposed to help students understand the power of symbols and their meaning. He said after he gave them the instructions, most of the students hesitated to step on the piece of paper. That moment of hesitation was the point of the lesson, he claimed.
The situation escalated when Ryan Rotella, a Mormon and a junior at FAU, claimed he was suspended for refusing to step on his piece of paper. That claim led to a frenzy of news coverage, a statement from FAU promising to end the class exercise, and the intervention of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who condemned the episode as, "intolerant to Christians and those of all faiths who deserve to be respected as Americans entitled to religious freedom."
Even though FAU and other schools have used the communications textbook for more than 30 years, this is the first time it has fueled such a heated backlash. But Poole said Rotella inflated the story. The student was not suspended because of his disagreement with the exercise, Poole said. He was suspended because he made a threatening gesture during his post-class conversation with the professor. Poole told Inside Higher Ed the student hit his balled fist into his hand and said “he wanted to hit me.” Poole said he notified campus security and filed a report on Rotella, who was suspended shortly after. Rotella’s lawyer denied Poole’s story about his client’s threats.
Angry critics are calling for FAU to fire Poole, but the school’s faculty union condemned that suggestion. “Lost will be freedom of speech in the classroom to 'present and discuss academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship,’” they said in a statement detailing the consequences of singling Poole out. United Faculty of Florida echoed that sentiment, saying Poole was unjustly criticized before all the facts were clear and denouncing FAU’s decision to retract the exercise.
Poole said he understands the outrage. He’s also a Christian, so he believes in the significance of Jesus’ name. But he also said the outrage had gone too far: he’s received hate-filled emails and death threats. Last week, the university sent him away on paid leave.
“We can have a healthy debate about the merits of this assignment,” he said in a statement. “But attacks on my character and threats of bodily harm have no place in this dialogue.”