FAU protesters fight for academic freedom in support of Dr. Poole

Cealia Brannan

Kristopher Thurston, 4, holds a sign in front of other posters brought to show support for instructor Deandre Poole Tuesday, April 9. Thurston came to the protest with his mother and friend of Poole, Kamae Haltaufderhyde. Photo by Ryan Murphy.
Kristopher Thurston, 4, holds a sign in front of other posters brought to show support for instructor Deandre Poole Tuesday, April 9. Thurston came to the protest with his mother and friend of Poole, Kamae Haltaufderhyde. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

FAU administration put its foot down on the “Jesus stomping” exercise, but may have stepped on the faculty’s toes.

The administration has not heard the last about its decision to put professor Deandre Poole on paid leave, or its decision to ban the controversial exercise from Poole’s intercultural communications class in March without consulting the university’s faculty.

The Owls For Academic Freedom led a march of about 50 people from noon to 1:30 p.m. yesterday in support of academic freedom and Poole’s right to teach the assignment in question. The group of protestors gathered on the free speech lawn and marched toward the administration building holding signs that read: “FAU Admin Doesn’t Speak for Us.”

 “Today’s rally will be in support of academic freedom and Dr. Poole,” said Gonzalo Vizcardo, primary organizer for the demonstration and senior economics and anthropology major. “We believe that the administration did not handle this correctly and should have stood up for academic freedom.”

 Vizcardo read a message to the rally members from Poole that expressed his love for his students, job, and “desire to motivate and educate.”

 Poole is a non-tenured professor on a one-year contract, which may or may not be renewed at the end of the academic year.

Gabi Aleksinko, senior intercultural relations major, and one of the organizers of this demonstration, was unsure of Poole’s job status and whether he would be terminated because of the controversy.

Protesters reenact the infamous assignment that put intercultural communications instructor Deandre Poole on leave by stepping on sheets of paper with words of objects or ideas that are meaningful to each protester. Photo by Ryan Murphy.
Protesters reenact the infamous assignment that put intercultural communications instructor Deandre Poole on leave by stepping on sheets of paper with words of objects or ideas that are meaningful to each protester. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

 “Unfortunately, because he is not tenured, there is that possibility. So, we want to send a message to the FAU administration that we like Dr. Poole,” she said.

 Faculty members, students, and South Florida residents sang lyrics like “Mine eyes have seen the failure of the Student Bill of Rights” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a traditional patriotic song, when they marched away from the Free Speech Lawn.

 “[FAU administrators who placed Poole on leave] should have stood their ground,” said Aleksinko. “They should have stood for academic freedom. And they did not.”

 Gina Carreno-Lukasik, a sociology instructor, disagreed with the decision to ban the “Jesus stomping” exercise that was deemed offensive by junior FAU student Ryan Rotela.

 “I completely disagree with the administration’s reaction,” said Carreno-Lukasik. “I feel it was a clear violation of academic freedom for them to release a statement that the assignment will never be used again.”

 Early in March, Poole followed a textbook assignment and asked students to write “Jesus” in big letters on a piece of paper. He then asked students to step on the piece of paper. This class demonstration sparked Rotela’s refusal to step on the paper. Rotela then went to the media and the controversy spread.

 “Well, I was talking to him before [Poole was put on administrative leave] so it wasn’t entirely surprising because of the threats he was getting,” said Chris Robe, associate professor of communication and president of the FAU chapter of faculty union, the United Faculty of Florida. “We’re disturbed by the administration’s reaction to this, in terms of, you know, saying he’ll never do it again and not really defending him nor speaking about it at all.”

 Maritza Flores, another sociology instructor, expressed her belief in the need to protect academic freedom. She was also disappointed in administrators.

 “We didn’t hear both sides,” she said.

 After meeting on the Free Speech Lawn, the group marched to the front of the administration building on the Boca FAU campus.

The group formed a circle and Aleksinko spoke from the middle of it. As papers and pencils were passed around to everyone, she explained an activity. She told each person in the crowd to think of a person, place, or thing that symbolized something of personal importance. She then told them to place the paper on the ground and step on it, demonstrating the likeness of Poole’s exercise.

 Leeann Sherwood, sociology major and protester, wrote “Goddess” on her sheet of paper, stomped on it, and exclaimed sarcastically that she was sure her goddess appreciated that.

After the demonstration, professors, students, and Boca Raton residents had the opportunity to speak out in the middle of the circle.

 Manjunath Pendakur, a communications professor, voiced his opinion in the middle of the circle, saying he viewed this situation as a “direct attack on core values.”

 “It’s a shameful event,” Pendakur said as he walked out of the circle.

 This is not the only group with an opinion about FAU’s reaction to Poole’s situation.

Leeann Sherwood, a sociology major, raises a sign during Tuesday afternoon’s protest to support instructor Deandre Poole in front of the Administration Building. Sherwood was among about 50 protesters who gathered to protest the administration’s treatment of Deandre Poole after a controversial in-class lesson. Photo by Ryan Murphy.
Leeann Sherwood, a sociology major, raises a sign during Tuesday afternoon’s protest to support instructor Deandre Poole in front of the Administration Building. Sherwood was among about 50 protesters who gathered to protest the administration’s treatment of Deandre Poole after a controversial in-class lesson. Photo by Ryan Murphy.

The march that Reverend Mark Boykin of The Church of All Nations lead on Apr. 4 protested the “Jesus stomping” activity. According to Boykin, about 200 people from the community and the church stood at the entrance to FAU’s Boca Raton campus holding signs displaying their disagreement with Poole’s class assignment.

 In response to the march held today, Boykin said, “Anytime you desecrate the icon, most precious name, that is given to a religious group such as Christians, I don’t know how you can call that freedom.”

 He referred to Poole’s class exercise as promoting iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious icons.

 “How far would they go? I mean, would you spit on it next? What is the purpose of desecrating something that is precious to any religious group?” Boykin said. “There is only one word for that, and that is iconoclasm. And intolerance.”

 Two online petitions represent both support and rejection of Poole’s predicament and his “Jesus stomping” act.

 The “Academic Freedom: Stop Targeting Dr. Poole” petition on SignOn.org was created on March 28 to support Poole and academic freedom. This petition has 358 signatures as of press time with a goal of 400 and will be presented to the president of FAU, Mary Jane Saunders, and the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, Frank T. Brogan.

 The other online petition posted in Christians in Action on Causes.com wants Poole fired. With 52 comments, the “FIRE Professor Deandre J. Poole for forcing his students to stomp on Jesus” petition has 1,032 votes and 2,697 shares.

 “I support academic freedom,” said Provost Brenda, who is in charge of academic programs at FAU, and made an appearance at the demonstration today.

[Ed note: The demonstration supporting academic freedom was organized by “Owls for Academic Freedom,” not the College Democrats according to organizer Gonzalo Vizcardo. The story has been corrected]