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It seems that whenever a university administration issues a statement undermining academic freedom it begins by reaffirming its undying commitment to exactly the principle it is about to damage. While such doublespeak, as Orwell famously demonstrated, is common to bureaucracies, that does not much help the cause of higher education when our own administrations once again prove his point. The administrative conundrum — how to appease angry stakeholders with contempt for academic freedom, while covering yourself with a ritual incantation supporting that very principle — was very much in evidence in Florida Atlantic University’s public statements about its "Step on Jesus" controversy. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the kind of disingenuous rhetoric the university used is to disable a principle by turning it into a hollow piety.
The context, for those who may not have read earlier stories, is that an FAU student was about to be investigated for allegedly threatening a faculty member who followed a textbook exercise to teach the power of symbols. A class was asked to write "Jesus" on a sheet of paper, then step on it. When students hesitated, they were given the opportunity to explain why, and the instructor pointed out that a symbol — the word "Jesus" — can be so identified with the idea of Jesus that stepping on it is offensive. In a viral frenzy, bloggers and press stories echoed the student’s inflammatory change of diction from "step" to "stomp," and petitions calling for faculty member Deandre Poole to be fired began to circulate. Florida’s Republican governor chimed in with calls for a state investigation of the incident and with a demand that the classroom exercise never be repeated.
Here, then, is FAU’s effort to eat its cake and have it too: "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 [a] curriculum that will bring about learning and enhance students’ experience at FAU."
It’s hard to see how FAU could have waffled more often in a few sentences. Its leaders support academic freedom but apologize for its exercise. Academic freedom will not be permitted to be exercised in this way again. Anything that arouses strong emotions may be barred from classrooms. And, of course, if people protest your assignments — even assignments taken from a popular published textbook — FAU will not get your back. And finally, as subsequent events have shown, if fanatics phone in death threats, you will be removed from campus to protect your own safety and that of others. That most recent step is eerily reminiscent of the University of South Florida’s 2001 decision to exile engineering professor Sami Al-Arian from campus after death threats were received. Some of us wondered at the time whether phone-in threats would prove a popular way to remove faculty from campus.
FAU went still further in undermining academic freedom and the First Amendment by subjecting Poole to a gag order, making it impossible for him to defend himself. The student meanwhile was free to claim his religious beliefs had been "desecrated," and the conservative blogosphere could promote the story as part of a long-running project of discrediting godless universities.
The United Faculty of Florida did a very good job of coming to Poole’s defense, but a faculty member identified as an appropriate commentator by the National Communication Association did not do much better than the university, affirming that "a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion.” If ideas offend a student, be sure to relieve the discomfort immediately. Extended intellectual distress apparently has no place in higher education.
Devout students who cannot tolerate fundamental and continuing challenges to their beliefs may well find a campus devoted to open discussion and debate to be a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons religiously affiliated colleges and universities exist — to provide a more comfortable place to study for those preferring a more constrained speech environment. Secular universities exist in part to challenge received beliefs. That includes confronting the rather less than sympathetic statements various religions have historically made against one another. That includes confronting scientific evidence that calls religious beliefs into question or effectively demolishes them.
Indeed, religious conviction cannot be separated from all the other beliefs a university education may challenge. That is one reason why any general resolution or law passed by the Florida legislature on this incident is likely to do broader damage than politicians may realize in the opportunistic heat of the moment. We cannot confront the brutal facts of 20th-century history — from enforced mass starvation to total war to genocide --
without doubting that human nature is any better, more consistent, or reliable, than cultural pressures make it. We cannot study the history of science without learning to tolerate and understand the variable interplay between doubt and certainty in science. Students may not all enjoy discovering that their assumptions about human nature are unfounded. They may not like learning that scientific certainty is not always unshakeable.
And they may not like realizing that religious faith is not grounded in anything more than faith itself, but these are some of the challenges to pre-existing values a university must entertain. And instructors need the freedom to invent classroom assignments that test the limits of student beliefs and put them under sustained --- not just temporary — pressure. However expedient it may appear to be, universities risk doing themselves long-term damage if they cave into fear and appease those on the left or the right would limit academic freedom. We are better off standing politically and culturally where we must if we are to remain institutions devoted to open debate and free inquiry. That is where our responsibilities to a democracy lie. However the facts about the Poole case may be revised in time — and they may well be — the assignment he reports giving was well within his academic freedom rights, and the FAU administration should not have weaseled its way out of giving it an unqualified defense.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.