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Gaffes 101: FAU’s reputation taking hit after hit

Even with new dorms and its own football team, the challenge for Florida Atlantic University has been simply getting noticed — more-established state universities such as the University of Florida often gobble up most of the media attention.

This semester, though, FAU has no problem attracting the limelight. The catch: FAU’s newfound name recognition is happening in the worst kind of way.

In the span of a few short months (and spring semester still isn’t over), FAU faculty and/or administrators have bizarrely questioned whether the Sandy Hook mass shooting really occurred, agreed to name the football stadium after a private prison operator known for human rights violations, and, most recently, received national scorn for a so-called “Jesus stomp” classroom lesson that infuriated Christians and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The backlash to that class lesson — which involved students being told to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then put that paper on the ground and step on it — has been so strong that FAU on Friday placed the professor involved on administrative leave, citing concerns for his “personal safety.”

The string of missteps have highlighted how quickly a damaging news story can go viral in the social-media age, and FAU leaders are quick to acknowledge they’ve had their hands full.

“This is new ground for every public university president,” said FAU President Mary Jane Saunders. “Social media is a new day in communications, and I believe we’re all struggling with how to get this to be balanced and accurate.”

Said FAU Board of Trustees chairman Anthony Barbar: “We have tried to deal with things as best we can.”

Others at the university, however, complain that FAU leaders have repeatedly made matters worse with how they’ve handled the controversies.

“A pattern that we’re seeing in all of these PR crises, which they’ve really caused themselves, is an unwillingness to really address the issue at hand, which only compounds them,” said FAU graduate student Anole Halper, one of those fighting the stadium naming. “Just a general incompetence at managing difficult situations.”

One huge unanswered question is whether there will be any lingering long-term damage to FAU’s institutional reputation — a problem that could affect everything from attracting new students to securing private charitable donations. Certainly, the negative media attention will fade away over time, but does that mean the public will automatically forget?

The recent troubles for Boca Raton-based FAU began in January, when news spread that communications associate professor James Tracy had suggested Connecticut’s Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy was being manipulated to promote a gun-control legislative agenda. In one posting on his private blog, Tracy wrote “While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place — at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”

FAU officials quickly backed away from Tracy’s comments (and correctly noted his website was not affiliated with the university). But the nation’s collective gasp was swift and severe: the top elected official in Newtown, Conn., called Tracy an “embarrassment” who deserved to be fired.

Tracy remains a tenured FAU professor, and reached last week, he said he stands by his blog comments. But Tracy said the media frenzy that surrounded his statements often failed to include a key point he was trying to make: police investigation documents such as autopsy reports, witness lists, and photo and video evidence were not being shared with the public.

“We just don’t know as much as we should know about something that should be fairly cut and dry,” Tracy said.

Following the Sandy Hook mess, FAU managed to spark anger during what is typically a non-controversial, uplifting event: the announcement of a multi-million dollar private donation.

But the generous $6 million donor in this case, Boca Raton’s GEO Group, happens to be the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison operator, and is the subject of numerous lawsuits and human-rights complaints. Among them:

• A Mississippi federal judge last year blasted a GEO-run youth prison facility for an abusive, unsafe environment that “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” GEO says it inherited the problems there from a previous operator, but the judge found the company did little to correct them.

•  Inmates at a GEO-run immigration detention center in Pompano Beach complained of being denied proper medical care, and being kept behind bars for lengthy periods of time despite the Obama Administration’s “prosecutorial discretion” initiative that is supposed to halt deportations of immigrants with strong community ties and no criminal records. At least one family with a current FAU student was previously detained there.

• In 2007, Texas canceled its $8 million GEO contract (and closed the affected youth prison) after inspectors discovered feces on floors and walls, along with excessive use of pepper spray on young inmates.

Despite considerable public criticism, FAU still plans to accept the $6 million gift and name its football stadium “GEO Group Stadium.” But the facility has already garnered a more-catchy nickname that combines prison lore with FAU’s feathered mascot: “Owlcatraz.”

In a written statement, GEO Group Vice President Pablo Paez said the company has been a strong FAU supporter for more than a decade, and is led by some proud FAU alums. Paez himself was once student body president, and company chairman and founder George Zoley is a two-time FAU grad who previously chaired the university board of trustees.

“Undoubtedly, every correctional organization in the world faces operational challenges and allegations that are inherent in the management of offender populations, and GEO is no exception,” Paez wrote. “However, our company has always been committed to protecting human rights and adhering to industry-leading standards.”

The naming controversy has prompted angry student demonstrations, a mocking mention on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” and — strangest of all — an alleged hit-and-run car accident involving President Saunders and a student protester.

On the morning of March 22, about 20 sign-carrying student protesters confronted Saunders as she headed to her car to leave the university’s Jupiter campus. When Saunders hurriedly drove away in her 2010 silver Lexus, one student — 22-year-old Britni Hiatt — says she was struck by the right side mirror of the vehicle, and sustained an orange-sized bruise. Campus police say Hiatt was ignoring police orders to get out of the car’s path (Hiatt disputes this) and Saunders said she is confident she’ll be cleared once the investigation is finished.

“There is no doubt in my mind that I feared for my safety,” Saunders said.

Though FAU’s Faculty Senate recently voted overwhelmingly to oppose the GEO Group naming, board of trustees chairman Barbar said he’s seen no evidence that the company has done anything wrong. FAU will not change course, Barbar said.

FAU leaders have demonstrated a much more contrite posture when it comes to the university’s latest PR crisis: a classroom exercise that asked students to step on a piece of paper with the word “Jesus” written on it. The lesson was featured as part of an Intercultural Communication class at FAU’s Davie campus, and it comes from the popular textbook Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach.

In theory at least, the exercise is supposed to teach students about the importance of symbols in culture, and the textbook predicts that most students won’t want to step on Jesus’ name — which is completely fine. Students are not supposed to be coerced into doing so.

But one student in FAU’s class, junior Ryan Rotela, who is a devout Mormon, said his objections to the exercise were brushed off by the instructor. Rotela’s attorney says the student told the professor he would complain to university higher-ups and the media, and was subsequently suspended from the class for exhibiting threatening behavior.

FAU’s president said she could not comment on the specifics of the case because of federal student-privacy laws. The class professor, Deandre Poole, is vice chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. He is also a Christian, according to those who know him.

“He is the most mild-mannered, tolerant person I know,” said Chris Robé, head of FAU’s faculty union. Robé said Poole was instructed by the university not to talk to the media and therefore has been unable to explain his version of events (FAU leaders deny this).

Rotela’s attorney, Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute in Texas, said he met with FAU administrators last week and they rescinded any punishment against the student, and Rotela will be allowed to finish the course under a different professor. The university also spent the week apologizing to the thousands (if not millions) of Christians who had been offended by Rotela’s story. A formal video apology was placed on the homepage of FAU’s website, and the university promised to eliminate that classroom teaching exercise.

Then, on Friday, FAU announced Poole was placed on administrative leave for his own safety. The accusation that the professor insisted his students stomp on Jesus’ name has prompted anger both in local church sermons and on social media — one Tallahassee lobbyist called Poole an “all-around piece of crap” on Twitter, while linking to Poole’s office phone number and e-mail address.

Anthony Santos, who heads Interfaith Programming for FAU’s student government, said it is hard for him to know if Poole’s actions were anti-Christian without knowing all the details about what transpired. If students were indeed forced to step on the word “Jesus,” then that would be clearly wrong, Santos said.

Generally speaking, though, Santos said FAU is a diverse, tolerant place where all religions are respected, including Christianity. On Saturday, Santos is organizing an on-campus Christian hip-hop concert, with the ambitious goal of attracting 1,000 students.

“It would be unfair for people to assume and stereotype FAU as being non-Christian,” Santos, 19, said.

The author of the now-infamous “Jesus” classroom exercise — St. Norbert College professor Jim Neuliep — argues that his textbook is respectful of faith. In an interview with the website Inside Higher Ed, Neuliep said the whole point of the exercise is that most students won’t step on the paper, and the discussion that follows gets them “talking about how important Jesus is to them, and they defend why they won’t step on it. It reaffirms their faith.”

The textbook itself never calls for anyone to “stomp” on Jesus — though Rotela says FAU students were told to “stomp” on the paper. Neuliep (who teaches at a Catholic college) said he’s used the exercise for 30 years with no complaints.

In the meantime, Robé, the head of FAU’s faculty union, faults the university for moving forward with the controversial stadium naming while simultaneously failing to stick up for its own faculty. FAU leaders have said abandoning the Jesus exercise is part of being respectful of students’ diverse points of view, but Robé calls it a classic battle of academic freedom — and another example of how FAU takes a bad situation and often makes it worse.

“If it’s in a textbook...the fourth edition of a textbook, it strikes me as pretty legitimate,” Robé said. “It’s a just fight...You don’t cave.”

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