(RNS) — Against a patriotic backdrop of U.S. and Florida state flags, Governor Ron DeSantis took the stage at a private Christian university in West Palm Beach, Florida, last Wednesday (Feb. 15) to unveil a new “Digital Bill of Rights.” The governor, known for cracking down on diversity, equity and inclusion programs and AP African American studies courses, also blasted Big Tech for surveillance and censorship.
That same day, an English professor at the university was intercepted outside his classroom by school administrators who cited concerns that he was “indoctrinating students,” according to the professor. Samuel Joeckel, who has taught at the university for over 20 years, reports that they informed him his contract renewal letter was being delayed until leadership could review his lessons on racial justice.
At issue, according to Joeckel, is a three-day unit he teaches in his Composition II course for first-year students at Palm Beach Atlantic. A parent reportedly called the university’s president, Debra Schwinn, with concerns about the unit Joeckel says he’s been teaching without issue for 12 years.
“It’s time for universities like mine to have these kinds of difficult conversations,” Joeckel told Religion News Service. “And I worry that the university has succumbed to a political culture that will not allow those conversations to even get out of the gate.”
Palm Beach Atlantic’s provost contends that the situation is a dustup over pedagogy, not censorship of racial justice education, according to an internal email shared with RNS. “Faculty are free to choose a theme that unifies their Composition II course,” the email says. “However, it is important that the Composition II objectives remain the focus of the course.” A spokesperson for the university declined to comment for this story, saying, “The university is not commenting on personnel matters.”
Joekel, PBA students and alumni and some academics see the incident as part of a broader suppression of racial justice education in the state of Florida and in conservative Christian colleges across the U.S.
Joeckel told Religion News Service he incorporates a racial justice unit into his writing class “precisely because I teach at a Christian university.” The unit includes excerpts of Christian historian Jemar Tisby’s “Color of Compromise,” readings from Martin Luther King Jr. and relevant polling data, according to the professor. Joeckel said he wants students to come to their own conclusions while completing essays on the topic.
“It’s my attempt to do something that the university says it takes very seriously, the integration of faith and learning,” said Joeckel. “It’s the work of the gospel, as I understand the gospel. If a unit like mine can’t be taught here, we’re in bad shape.”
In the last week, students and alumni have drafted a public petition to save Joeckel’s job, with over 1,400 signatures and an open letter to the university’s president asking her to publicly apologize and commit to academic freedom.
Danielle Hawk, a PBA alumna and former democratic nominee for Congress, believes the university’s treatment of Joeckel is directly linked to the political climate in Florida.
“I think it fits into this broader culture, especially what we’re seeing in the state of Florida right now with Ron DeSantis and his censorship, white-washing issues of race, and really, a frankly paranoid surveillance of academic institutions. And he’s doing that in private schools and public schools,” observed Hawk.
Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology at Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania, says viewing racial justice education as a threat isn’t just a Florida problem.
A year ago, Grove City made headlines when a group of parents published a petition accusing the Christian school of promoting critical race theory, an academic and legal theory that examines how systemic racism has shaped law and society. The school quickly became engulfed in a politicized dispute resulting in a board report that acknowledged instances of “CRT advocacy” while absolving the school from allegations of “going woke.”
“What the administration was doing to help raise awareness about social justice and racial consciousness … all of a sudden was considered subversive. Some people were being interrogated and became worried about what they were teaching,” said Throckmorton.
This year, things on campus have simmered. Throckmorton said there’s “cautious optimism” that last year’s debate won’t stifle what’s taught in the classroom. But the debate is still stirring online, where stakeholders concerned about CRT encroachment have authored another petition lamenting the direction of the college and calling for the president’s departure.
According to Throckmorton, “The people who have been opposing the current president and the college have argued that colleges like Hillsdale, who reject what they call ‘wokeness,’ are thriving. And colleges that are like Wheaton or Calvin, that are not like Hillsdale … that are taking racial justice seriously, aren’t doing as well.”