Professor Deandre Poole of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) received death threats over an academic exercise conducted in his class on intercultural communications.
The voluntary exercise was included in the teacher’s manual accompanying the course textbook and asked students to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then step on it. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate how symbols—letters on paper—accumulate power by personal or cultural association with larger meanings. Following local media coverage, Dr. Poole received death threats. Online petitions were circulated calling for his dismissal, and Florida Governor Rick Scott publicly asked the university for a report on the incident and issued a statement criticizing the professor’s lesson as “offensive, and even intolerant.” The university placed Dr. Poole “on administrative leave effective immediately for safety reasons”; issued a public apology calling the exercise “insensitive and unacceptable”; and stated that the exercise will not be used again. According to Dr. Poole and other sources, the university instructed him not to discuss the incident publicly.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about physical threats against a university faculty member conducting an in-class academic exercise within the area of his expertise. State and university authorities have a responsibility to protect higher education personnel from such threats, and to do so in ways that do not undermine academic freedom or institutional autonomy. By removing Dr. Poole from the classroom, rather than taking steps to ensure the security of the classroom space from outside intimidation, the university appears to have sacrificed academic freedom to political expediency. This appearance is magnified by the allegation that the institution instructed the professor not to discuss the matter publicly and the institution’s decision that the disputed exercise would not be used again. Whether the exercise could have been amended to achieve the same pedagogic goal without causing foreseeable offense to others is a legitimate question for deliberation within the academic systems in place at the institution, and one that requires careful consideration of several core higher education values including autonomy, academic freedom and social responsibility. But any attempt to influence the outcome of such deliberation through physical threats or coercion must be rejected. This would include statements by elected officials who while free to express personal disapproval of specific academic content, should refrain from statements or conduct which might be perceived as threatening to use state authority to punish academic content or conduct.
UPDATE: This incident is followed by an update. To view, please click here.