For What It’s Worth

Student, not prof, suspended

Recently, in a class on Intercultural Communications at Florida Atlantic University the instructor asked students to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, fold the paper, put it on the floor, and step on it.

One student, Ryan Rotella, a devout Mormon, was offended and refused to participate in the exercise. His reason: “Anytime you stomp on something it shows that you believe that something has no value,” he said in an interview with a reporter. “So, if you were to stomp on the word Jesus, it says that the word has no value.”

In addition to not participating in the exercise, Ryan voiced his concerns to the instructor’s supervisor and subsequently learned he had been suspended from the class. As for the instructor, Dr. Deandre Poole, the university has made no comment whether he will face any disciplinary action.

A university statement said Dr. Poole was conducting a classroom exercise from a textbook entitled Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition and released this statement: “Faculty and students at academic institutions pursue knowledge and engage in open discourse. While at times the topics discussed may be sensitive, a university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate.”

Frankly, as the old saying goes, this statement doesn’t hold water.

Before commenting further, an acknowledgement is in order. While a working journalist, I spent several years as an adjunct professor and for 10 years before retiring and three years after retirement I was a university professor. I understand and appreciate the concept of academic freedom. It is only fair that you know this in understanding where I am coming from and in evaluating my comments. In addition, I am a Christian.

The FAU statement asserts that faculty and students at academic institutions pursue knowledge and engage in open discourse. I have no problem with that assertion or premise. Whether a particular student does so or whether an individual faculty member pursues knowledge and engages in open discourse may be open to question or to one’s definition of open discourse.

I support the concept of academic freedom and open discourse, though I sometimes have serious doubts about how open discourse really is because of what I perceive to be the restrictions and restraints imposed on communication by political correctness.

Yes, as the university statement says, topics discussed may at times be sensitive and a university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate. The problem here is that stomping on a piece of paper with a name written on it, in this case Jesus, would appear, without additional information or explanation, to be neither dialogue nor debate. If it were, then in the name of “open discourse,” the student must be allowed to disagree, i.e., not participate and express his disapproval, without action taken against him. But, action was taken against him, which seems to be in violation of the university’s own stated position.

I understand that a short news story is short on information about the incident and certainly more is involved than was contained or explained in the news account. But, based on the information at hand, I cannot see how, based on its statement, the university can support its action of suspending the student from class.

It is not a point at issue here, but I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if the professor had chosen another name and religion. For example, what might have transpired if the name had been Mohammed and the religion Islam? In that case, we might get an even clearer picture of what the university considers engaging “in open discourse” and whether with the “sensitive” topic of Mohammed and Islam the “university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate.” Based on my experience in academia, I cannot believe that a professor would have been permitted to do the exercise using Mohammed instead of Jesus.

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1 Response to For What It’s Worth

  1. Cindy says:

    I agree that there must be more to this story.

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