Politics Destroys a Florida Atlantic U. Instructor’s Reputation

April 7, 2013. Classroom exercise on symbolism and religious intolerance becomes platform for “Tea Party” posturing

April 7, 2013.

Letter to Chronicle of Higher Education

April 2, 2013, 8:51 pm

To the Editor:

A few weeks ago a young African American instructor of intercultural communication at the Florida Atlantic University, a public university in Palm Beach County, decided to use an exercise from his students’ textbook to begin a discussion about emotional responses to religious symbolism (“‘Jesus’-Stomping Exercise at Florida Atlantic U. Draws Rebuke From Governor,The Chronicle, March 26). The instructor planned to segue to a discussion about religious intolerance, an important contemporary issue. Students were asked to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper. After thoughtfully considering the word’s meaning, they were to place it on the floor and consider whether they could step on it.

The instructor’s expectation was that students would refuse to step on the word and a lively discussion about the power of the symbol would begin. The instructor had used the exercise before and he felt and the resulting discussions were worthwhile.

However, that evening, one student became so upset by the exercise that the instructor had to dismiss the class early and call campus security. Subsequently, the student contacted the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal foundation, and a campaign began via the conservative Christian blogosphere to fire the professor who “made students stomp on Jesus.”

The amount of hate mail, complete with death threats and racist slurs, that flowed from the religious right to university faculty members and administrators was so overpowering that the instructor was put on administrative leave for his and his students’ safety. His classes were reassigned to his colleagues. The university administration forbade the instructor to discuss the situation with the press because mentioning the student’s reaction to the exercise would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Fox News reported the story, repeating the phrase “stomp on Jesus.” The headline was picked up by the local press. The student appeared on local television and gave interviews to the press about how he refused to “stomp on Jesus.”

Faculty members at Florida Atlantic were shocked when the vice president for student affairs posted a video on the university Web site apologizing for the professor’s behavior and promising the exercise would be “removed from the curriculum.” The university issued a press release offering the information that the instructor was on a one-year contract.

The governor of the State of Florida was interviewed about the incident by The Miami Herald. He called the student “a hero,” said that an apology from the university was not enough, and demanded that the university “ensure that this type of lesson will not occur again.” The governor, a Tea Party conservative, faces a reelection campaign this year and clearly hopes that the outraged religious right will support his strong stance against “stomping on Jesus.”

Now for the rest of the story.

The young African American instructor was raised by his grandmother in Riviera Beach, one of the poorest sections of Palm Beach County. The young boy found solace in his grandmother’s Christian church. While working full time, he completed his B.A. and his M.A. at Florida Atlantic, attributing his success to his unwavering faith in God.

I was one of the professors who wrote a letter of recommendation for him when he sought to pursue his Ph.D. at Howard University. Upon graduation, he returned to Florida Atlantic as a full-time Instructor so that he could reach students like himself on a campus that is majority minority. Sadly, this young man, who should be valorized by his university, has been thrown into the meat grinder of Tea Party politics by the new Florida Atlantic president, who was selected by the Board of Trustees, who were appointed by this governor.

Florida Atlantic University has recently hired many full-time instructors to replace tenure-track faculty members. These people receive one-year contracts, ostensibly so that if the state legislature cuts the higher-education appropriation, the university budget can be adjusted by letting them go. However, as this case illustrates, an instructor who introduces a subject at a public university that a political organization can mobilize against and a politician can exploit should fear that his contract won’t be renewed by an obedient university administration and that his reputation will be destroyed.

Education cannot advance without questioning the status quo. This case has a chilling effect on academic freedom in this country.

Susan Reilly
School of Communication & Multimedia Studies
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Fla.