Don’t stifle professors’ academic freedom

 

The “Jesus-stomping incident at Florida Atlantic University has been grossly mischaracterized and poorly explained by the administration.

The assignment from the textbook Intercultural Communication states:

“This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Academic freedom serves as the linchpin of the university. According to FAU’s faculty handbook: “Academic freedom and responsibility are essential to the full development of a true university and apply to teaching, research and creative activities. An employee engaged in such activities shall be free to cultivate a spirit of inquiry and scholarly criticism and to examine ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and confidence.”

Although it is never the intention of a faculty member to offend students, at times controversial material might unintentionally do so. As a result, we then use the classroom to discuss the controversy in a forthright and honest manner. But offense alone never justifies immediate censorship of the material and/or the pedagogy. Galileo offended critics by claiming the Earth was not the center of the solar system. Some groups continue to be offended by evolutionary theory. Offense, although to be avoided, sometimes accompanies the advancement of knowledge.

We find it outrageous that critics of Dr. Deandre Poole immediately condemned his exercise without fully knowing the facts. When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry.

If Dr. Poole is dismissed from his teaching position for this incident, more is lost than simply a stellar instructor who has routinely received high praise from his students and supervisors. Also lost will be the good faith of the faculty who placed their trust in an administration to defend the academic freedom that defines the university.

Lost will be freedom of speech in the classroom to “present and discuss academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship,” as is enshrined in our collective-bargaining agreement. Lost will be the future scholars who will no longer want to work at an institution whose credibility has been tarnished. Lost will be the current scholars who leave our institution for others that respect academic freedom.

It is time to defend academic freedom through the maelstrom of uninformed attacks since the controversy will eventually pass, but the institution will remain. And the type of institution that remains will largely depend upon whether the core principles of academic freedom are preserved or not.

Chris Robe, president , United Faculty of Florida-Florida Atlantic University Chapter, Boca Raton

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