The FAU Follies: When Universities Provide Circuses (but no bread)

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by William L. Anderson

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Modern American Higher Education is a PR juggernaut; a knowledge juggernaut it is not, and watching universities trying to become “relevant” often can be entertaining — if it were not so pathetic. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton is one of those places that started small and wants to be relevant, but instead has become pitiful.

The university itself is a place that rose from tiny beginnings but now is well-known because of a couple of things. The first is for something that recently occurred in a classroom. The second is for an inexcusable act in which the university has gained a corporate sponsor that would make Blackwater look like a good choice.

My first visit to what is now FAU, which was constructed at an abandoned military base, was in March 1968 when I was a ninth grader. Glades Road, where FAU is located, was a two-lane road that led off into nowhere. My mother and I played tennis on the outdoor courts there. Today, the university has more than 20,000 students and Glades Road is a major thoroughfare. However, two things have given the university some unwanted publicity, so the administration there has done what administrations tend to do at the university level these days: abuse students and rely upon public relations, lots of PR.

The Duke Lacrosse Case would not have been possible without the encouragement and near-criminal behavior of Duke’s administrators. (When the three indicted players were vindicated, Duke paid them close to $7 million apiece, from what my friends tell me. But the administrators were able to use someone else’s money.) The situation at FAU is not the lacrosse case, but nonetheless is telling.

An instructor told students to write the name “Jesus” on a sheet of paper and then step on it. From what I can gather, it was not required to stomp, but if one refused, one had to write as to why he or she took such actions. One student, Ryan Rotela, complained to the administration, and the fireworks began.

My sense is that the teacher was trying to be “edgy,” not blasphemous, although he was smart enough not to get his students to write “Mohammed” as opposed to "Jesus,” as he might have faced a future Fatwa. However, given that the professor is a Democratic Party official in Palm Beach County, conservatives have jumped all over this, as you can imagine. And I only can surmise about the kind of hate mail the professor has received from “outraged” Christians.

Unfortunately, the university has retaliated against the student, creating yet another nasty battlefield in the Eternal Culture Wars. As what happens when the lawyers jump into the fight, we shall see charges and countercharges as the talking heads on all sides continue to nationalize what was an incident in a classroom.

Rotela, who is a devout Mormon, has received a "Notice of Charges" from FAU's administration with the following points made in a letter the university sent to him:

…according to a letter written by Associate Dean Rozalia Williams, Rotela is facing a litany of charges — including an alleged violation of the student code of conduct, acts of verbal, written or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person."

"In the interim, you may not attend class or contact any of the students involved in this matter — verbally or electronically — or by any other means," Williams wrote to Rotela. "Please be advised that a Student Affairs hold may be placed on your records until final disposition of the complaint."

I am not sure what Rotela might have done, but I suspect that the university is angry he told someone outside the "community" (as administrators like to call their university when a faculty member or administrator has committed a faux pas) about what happened. One also has to understand that in this modern secular era, most higher education faculty members and administrators are intellectually incapable of understanding why a student might not want to stomp on a piece of paper with "Jesus" written on it.

Nonetheless, the university now has opened a whole new chapter in abuse of students by bringing charges against the student. Whether or not he broke university rules (the courts have ruled that university administrations are not bound by rules or anything else their handbooks say) is irrelevant to the larger issue of yet another university going after religious students. While the university "apologized" for what happened in the classroom (and I am not sure that an apology was necessary), nonetheless its reaction is worse than whatever took place in class.

Around the country, private universities such as Vanderbilt in Nashville have banned Christian groups from meeting on campus, citing the "open access" rules which state that all official student campus organizations must have membership and leadership positions open to all other students, regardless of the beliefs they might hold. The Christian groups have said that while anyone is invited to attend their meetings, their officers must be Christians, which is too much for the Vandy administration.

(State universities have tried the same thing, but have been rebuffed in the courts because, interestingly, their role as government institutions means that they have to adhere to Constitutional standards of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Sooner or later, however, I predict that the courts will vacate earlier decisions in the name of some "Progressive" line of thinking.)

Unfortunately, FAU's administration has chosen to distinguish itself in quite another endeavor: naming its new football stadium the GEO Group Stadium. For those who do not recognize the firm by its initials, the GEO Groups, Inc., is a firm that makes its money with private prisons. That's right, FAU has given naming rights to its stadium to an organization that essentially is part of the out-of-control incarceration policies of the United States. Lenore Skenazy notes:

The result of our increased eagerness to lock folks up is that America now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. For every 100,000 Americans, we’ve got 730 behind bars. Our next-closest “competitor” is Russia, with 500 per 100,000. Iran has 350, and China is looking like Sweden or something, with just over 100. Peace out, China! How is it that America is so much more jail-happy than even the most repressive regimes?

The trend began in the 1970s, says Sabrina Jones, co-author with Marc Mauer of the graphic book version of “Race to Incarcerate.” Until then, the number of prisoners in the United States had been pretty stable throughout the 20th century. But in just four decades, it skyrocketed from about 250,000 inmates in 1970 to 2.3 million today.

As one who supports private enterprise, I cannot support private institutions that make their money from state-sponsored decisions to throw certain individuals into what essentially are cages. Not in the name of "efficiency" or "saving money for taxpayers." Private prisons are not the result of free exchange or free markets; indeed, the majority of people who enter such facilities do so under duress.

Furthermore, because they essentially are government-created entities, private prisons benefit from the nation's harsh drug laws and the increasing violence committed by police and other state agents. As I told Skenazy when she interviewed me for the article: "These outfits make money by having their prisons filled so they will lobby for laws that call for incarceration of actions that previously people did not go to prison for." We are dealing with moral hazard on steroids.

Free markets and, to be honest, free minds are not prized at American universities. Groupthink — imposed in the name of "diversity" — is common and it seems that the campus tends to be the last bastion of academic Marxists.

It is ironic, then, that a university that wants to be academically "edgy" is willing to have a very symbol of this country's obscene policies of incarceration naming its football stadium. I'd like to say I am surprised, but I am not. After all, the administrators and faculty members that attempt to impose cultural and academic Marxism upon students are intellectual descendants of those who supported tyrants like Josef Stalin and Mao when they were murdering millions, all in the name of building "a socialist paradise."

And, not surprisingly, we see the usual kind of PR talk from all involved, something for which American higher education gives us again and again:

Officials at the GEO Group and Florida Atlantic University asserted that the naming rights were part of a philanthropic mission, and that the company and its chief executive have longstanding ties with the community. A Geo Group spokesman, Pablo Paez, wrote in an email that the $6 million donation was “consistent with the GEO Group Foundation’s commitment to fund educational causes and scholarships.”

“Often, companies are criticized for not engaging in enough philanthropic ventures, but we strongly believe in the importance of good corporate citizenship,” Paez said, adding that the gift will help “thousands of students attend a first-class institution of higher learning over the next 12 years.”

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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