News Column

Prison Firm Backs Off Bid to Name FAU Stadium

April 2, 2013

Michael Vasquez

Just hours after the latest student protest, Boca-Raton based GEO Group on Monday withdrew its planned $6 million gift to Florida Atlantic University, a gift that would have put its name on the school's football stadium.

Controversy had dogged the gift from the beginning, as GEO Group's status as the second-largest private prison operator in the country prompted jokes nicknaming the stadium Owlcatraz, after FAU's mascot. More serious criticism came from human-rights organizations on the company's reputation for housing prisoners in unhealthy, abusive squalor.

Only days ago, FAU leaders had insisted the naming would go forward. FAU's board of trustees chairman on Friday said he'd seen no evidence of wrongdoing by the firm.

On Monday morning, a coalition of more than 60 civil rights, immigrant, student and faith organizations delivered an opposition letter to FAU President Mary Jane Saunders and the university's board of trustees. An hour or so after that, FAU student protesters began their latest march in front of the stadium.

At 6:38 p.m. Monday, university spokeswoman Lisa Metcalf e-mailed the media that the $6 million gift was being withdrawn.

GEO Group Chairman and CEO George Zoley issued this statement: "What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO's goodwill to financially assist the university's athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations."

Saunders issued a statement praising Zoley, a two-time FAU alumnus and former board of trustees chairman, as a "loyal" supporter of the university. She was not available for interviews Monday evening.

Those who had fought the stadium naming were shocked by the news of their sudden victory.

"You're sure it's not an April Fool's joke?" asked Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership, who signed Monday's opposition letter.

Graduate student Anole Halper was equally stunned, and her voice audibly bounced with excitement.

"I can't believe this happened," Halper said. "We're so glad to hear that our university has decided to do what's right."

Though Saunders didn't actually refuse the gift, Halper said she saw the voluntary withdrawal as mostly a face-saving gesture.

"Her actions speak louder than her words," Halper said. "And we're glad that she decided to do the right thing."

Meanwhile, FAU is still dealing with a controversy over a classroom exercise at its Davie campus that has angered Christians and prompted an inquiry by Gov. Rick Scott.

A student, junior Ryan Rotela. complained that students were required to stomp on a piece of paper with the word "Jesus" on it.

FAU instructor Deandre Poole, after more than a week of silence on the issue, told the news website Inside Higher Ed in an article published Monday that he is a Christian who was following a textbook exercise to prompt discussion -- and that he didn't force anyone to stomp on the name of Jesus.

"I am very religious," Poole told the site, adding that he has served as a Sunday School teacher. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior."

Poole said FAU had instructed him not to talk to the media. He did not return phone calls from The Miami Herald.

The classroom exercise comes from a popular textbook, Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, written by a professor at a Wisconsin Catholic college. The goal of the lesson is to spark a respectful classroom discussion on the importance of symbols in culture -- the textbook assumes most students will be unwilling to step on the paper. Poole said most of his students followed that pattern, and did not step on the paper.

The public anger directed at Poole has included death threats and he was put on administrative leave for his own protection.

In his comments to Inside Higher Ed, Poole said that one student, whom he didn't name, had repeatedly said, "How dare you disrespect someone's religion?" After class, Poole said the student announced "he wanted to hit me" while making a fist and punching it into his other hand. Poole said he was worried and filed a report with campus police.

Rotela's attorney, Hiram Sasser, said the student didn't physically threaten his instructor.

"That's not true," Sasser said. "That did not happen."

Source: (c)2013 The Miami Herald Distributed by MCT Information Services

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