Why Was FAU Student Suspended?

Faculty union president says charges were brought not because the student objected to the "Jesus" exercise, but because student threatened the instructor. The student's lawyer sees pretext.

March 29, 2013

Florida Atlantic University has maintained for a week now that no student was suspended for refusing to participate in an exercise in which students were told to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and to stand on it. And for a week now, the lawyer for one student has been saying that the university suspended his client for objecting to the lesson. Florida's governor and numerous other politicians have also joined the discussion, denouncing the lesson that was used, and demanding to know why the student was suspended.

But the president of the faculty union at Florida Atlantic asserted in an interview with Inside Higher Ed Thursday that the university has neglected to explain that the student faced charges for making a threat against the instructor. Chris Robé, the head of the faculty union, said he has spoken to the instructor, Deandre Poole.

Robé -- who did not name the student -- said that Poole has been ordered by the university not to talk to any reporters, and is thus unable to defend himself, even as he has been widely criticized as anti-Christian (among other things). Poole is non-tenure-track, working on a one-year contract. Conservative activists are calling for him to be fired.

"He's been under a gag order, and the story has been framed all wrong," Robé said.

The reason the student faced charges, Robé said, was that "the instructor was verbally threatened," not because the student objected to the Jesus exercise. "He faced a hearing over that."

Robé said that faculty members have been frustrated that the university has been repeatedly apologizing for the lesson that the student objected to, without "talking to faculty members about what really went on."

"I'm baffled," Robé said, as to why the university would apologize for -- and pledge to never again allow -- a lesson that is suggested in the instructor's guide to a popular textbook. The instructor had the right to use the exercise, he said, and faculty members should have that right in the future.

"We defend anybody's free speech," he said. Robé called it "disturbing" that the university has effectively barred a lesson plan. (A professor at another university, who created the lesson plan, discussed it -- and why he doesn't view it as anti-religious -- in this article.)

Hiram Sasser, the student's lawyer, provided Inside Higher Ed with a copy of the charges that were brought against the student, Ryan Rotela. The student was charged with violating a university rule barring "acts of verbal, written (including electronic communications) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person." The letter with the charges did not outline how Rotela was said to have violated that rule.

Sasser said that Rotela did not threaten anyone and that he faced the charges (which Sasser said have been dropped) in retaliation for objecting to the Jesus lesson. Sasser said that the university wouldn't have apologized to him and dropped the charges if his client had threatened an instructor.

In response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, Florida Atlantic released a statement that said that federal privacy laws prevented it from answering any questions about "a specific student." The statement did say that "there is a tremendous amount of misinformation that has been reported regarding this incident, but unfortunately federal privacy laws restrict our ability to correct that information."

On questions of banning an exercise from use ever again, the statement said the following: "Florida Atlantic University is deeply sorry for any hurt that this incident may have caused the community and beyond. As an institution of higher learning, we embrace open discourse in our classrooms. Based upon the emotions brought about by this exercise it will not be used in the future and no students will be disciplined in any way related to the exercise, either inside or outside the classroom. The university supports its faculty members in their efforts to develop curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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