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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Carson’s ‘Extreme Bias’ Example

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson says he would use the Department of Education to monitor “extreme political bias” on college campuses, but the example he has cited isn’t as clear-cut as Carson suggests.

Carson has mentioned a 2013 incident in which, he says, a student was disciplined for refusing to “stomp” on a piece of paper with the name “Jesus” written on it. That was the student’s side of the story.

But the professor, who has said he’s a Christian, said he was following the instructor’s manual of a textbook written by a professor at a Catholic college. The exercise wasn’t designed to have students actually step on the piece of paper — and the professor has said most did not. Instead, it was intended to spark a conversation in the Intercultural Communications class about the importance of symbols once students hesitated to step (not “stomp”) on it. The textbook author said at the time that he uses the exercise and that his students “walk away having reaffirmed their faith.”

As for the discipline, the student claimed he was suspended from the class after reporting the incident to university officials. But the professor said that the student had threatened to hit him after class while making a fist. The student received a letter from the university charging him with violating a student code of conduct clause related to making threats, but pursuit of such charges was dropped.

Certainly, bias, and even “extreme bias,” is subjective — a matter of opinion. And we’ll leave readers to make up their own minds about the incident Carson has cited. But they need more information in order to evaluate it. Carson only gives one side to the story — that of the aggrieved student — and leaves out the explanation from the professor and the university, and other details.

Carson said on the “Glenn Beck Radio Program” on Oct. 21 that he would use the Department of Education to “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” The next day, he spoke with conservative radio host Dana Loesch about his plan and gave the stomping incident as an example (starting at the 25-minute mark):

Carson, Oct. 22: I’m aware of one college where one of the professor said to all the students take out a piece of paper, write the word “Jesus” on it and then put it on the ground and stomp on it and one student refused to do that and he was disciplined. You know, that to me is extreme political bias. … Anybody who doesn’t think that that’s extreme is extreme themselves.

He again gave that example in talking with NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, in an interview that was posted to NBC’s website on Oct. 25, saying: “Taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. … There’s just no way that our institutions of higher education should be used for indoctrination.”

But was the case he mentioned an attempt at “propaganda” or “indoctrination”?

The incident, which occurred at the Davie, Florida, campus of Florida Atlantic University, dates to early 2013 and stirred up plenty of controversy. It led to death threats against the professor, who was placed on paid administrative leave and later reinstated, and protests on campus by both those opposing and supporting him, according to several news reports.

On March 21, 2013, WPEC-TV in Miami reported that “[a] student at Florida Atlantic University said he was unfairly suspended from his Intercultural Communications class because he refused to step on Jesus.” The student said that as a Mormon, he was offended, refused to participate, then complained to the professor’s supervisor and later learned he had been suspended from class.

The story was picked up by Fox News Radio, among other news outlets. Florida Gov. Rick Scott even weighed in, asking the university system chancellor for a report on the incident and how it was handled. Several reports pointed out that Poole was an active Democrat.

The university initially said in a statement: “While at times the topics discussed may be sensitive, a university environment is a venue for such dialogue and debate.” But days later, the university apologized for the “insensitive” exercise. Vice President of Student Affairs Charles Brown said in a March 26 video that the university “embrace[s] academic freedom” but would not use the exercise again because of its “offensive nature.”

Brown also said that no student had been disciplined because of the exercise. “We have not taken any disciplinary action against any student as a result of this matter.”

The student had been sent a March 8 letter from the student affairs administration, saying that “you are being charged with violating FAU’s Student Code of Conduct Regulation 4.007, specifically (N) 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.” That’s according to a June 2013 report by FAU’s Academic Freedom and Due Process Committee, as well as an April 9, 2013, story in the student newspaper, University Press.

The professor, Deandre Poole, had reported that the student, Ryan Rotela, had threatened him. Poole told the Palm Beach Post editorial board in early April 2013 — and the online publication Inside Higher Ed — that the student repeatedly smacked a clenched fist into his other hand, while saying he wanted to hit him. The student’s lawyer denied that account. The Post also reported that the March 8 letter to Rotela told him not to attend Poole’s class until the code of conduct matter was resolved.

Pursuit of the student code violation was dropped, the academic freedom report found. Rotela’s legal counsel, Liberty Institute, issued a statement that said there had been a closed-door meeting on March 25 with university officials who “apologized in person, agreed not to take any further action against [the student], will expunge all academic charges from his student records, and will allow him to take the course under the supervision of an alternate professor.”

Poole told the Palm Beach Post that most students didn’t step on the paper and that he had used the exercise one other time, in 2012, without any issues. He was asked by the editorial board how he would respond to the exercise if he were a student. “I would write it, but I wouldn’t step on it because the name Jesus to me has symbolic value. Jesus to me is my lord and my savior,” the paper quoted Poole as saying.

The textbook, “Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach (Fifth Edition),” was written by James W. Neuliep, a professor at St. Norbert College, a small Catholic school in Wisconsin, and a former editor of the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research. In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, which was published March 28, 2013, Neuliep said that the exercise wasn’t intended to denigrate Christianity at all. Quite the opposite. 

“In my classroom, when I use it, it’s done respectfully. The students walk away having reaffirmed their faith. It’s not an attack, it’s a reaffirmation,” said Neuliep, who noted that the exercise had been a part of the textbook for at least 10 years and he hadn’t heard of any previous controversies over it.

The instructor’s manual, the paper reported, says that the exercise is “sensitive” but that it “really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”

The manual says that students should write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then put it on the floor. “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.”

In the end, Poole was reinstated in June of that year after being placed on paid leave by the university over concern for his safety. Twenty of the 23 students who were in Poole’s class during the controversial exercise signed a letter supporting him, University Press, reported. That letter said: “We the students were not offended by any class room activities, including the one pertaining to Jesus, which was not specific to symbolize ‘Jesus Christ.’ … We stand with Professor Poole during this rough time and refuse to let him continue to be demonized.”

In July 2013, after complaints from faculty members that university officials didn’t consult them before issuing a ban on the exercise, officials backed away from such a ban and said the faculty “will be reviewing the exercise in question.”

As we said, readers can determine for themselves whether this is an example of “extreme political bias,” and they are entitled to their opinions — as is Carson. But there’s a lot more to the story than what he describes.