A Crash Course in Symbolism

A Florida professor's efforts to teach intercultural communication has him under fire from conservatives.

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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 conservative Christian Texas-based Liberty Institute 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.” Although dealing with his own difficulties with Florida’s first black female lieutenant governor that week, 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 at on-campus rallies defending academic freedom. It also announced that Poole’s annual contract would be renewed. (The faculty senate also released a thorough and well-told account of the incident, which can be read here.)

Poole’s battle is far from over. A top-level administrator who investigated the incident was let go, Poole told The Root. For the summer he is teaching online, but he’s hoping to be back in the classroom in the spring, when the university will evaluate whether it makes sense to renew his contract for a fourth year.

Several Christian activists were reignited 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., which is launching a community conversation series sponsored by the Interactivity Foundation August 21.  Deandre Poole will join to talk about his experiences. For more information, visit the website

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