Florida Atlantic University professor Deandre Poole, the instructor at the center of a "stomp on Jesus" controversy, has been placed on administrative leave to protect his own safety, according to the Boca Raton-based university.
"As a result of the reaction to a recent exercise in Dr. Poole's intercultural communications class, the instructor's personal safety has been compromised," an FAU statement reads.
FAU junior Ryan Rotela said that in early March he refused to participate in an exercise in which students were asked to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and then step on it. Rotela told multiple media outlets he was later suspended for refusing.
But Poole told the students that none of them had to participate, according to the university. Fox News provided a "synopsis" of the lesson plan, which was based on a textbook exercise guide and ended: "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."
FAU faculty union president Chris Robé said Rotela's punishment was actually based on a verbal threat made against Poole. And in a statement, FAU said that no one was suspended in relation to the exercise, but added that federal privacy laws prevented it from explaining in detail.
Amid the confusion, Robé told South Florida's Sun Sentinel that Poole has received death threats and racially charged voicemails.
"I've never seen anything like it on campus, the vitriol that has been released on this guy," Robé said.
One of the messages said the instructor would find himself hanging from a tree, Poole told Inside Higher Ed.
"There are churches that want to march against me," Poole said. "There are people calling on the university to fire me. And it's all for doing my job. I was doing my job."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) labeled the exercise as intolerant against Christianity, and some conservatives have pointed to Poole's affiliation with the local Democratic Party as proof of liberal bias in the classroom.
The man who came up with the controversial exercise, St. Norbert College professor Jim Neuliep, told Inside Higher Ed that this is the first complaint he's heard in 30 years.
The exercise is meant to open up a discussion about religious symbols. Neuliep said there's a simple reason why it uses "Jesus" and not "Mohammad": Far more students in the U.S. practice Christianity than Islam.
Poole, who considers himself "very religious," said most students actually chose not to step on "Jesus" and that no one was punished for it.