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 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 media. “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 media. “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.”
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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 media 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.”
Hillsdale College, a Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan, known for its conservative political identity, saw an enrollment surge of 16% in fall 2021 and reported an endowment topping $900 million that same year. The school advertises on Fox News, and in 2020 Donald Trump appointed the school’s president to chair a committee created to help curb “anti-American” scholarship.
According to Hillsdale’s website, the college rejects “the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity,’ which judges individuals not as individuals, but as members of a group and which pits one group against other competing groups in divisive power struggles.”
Other politically conservative Christian colleges have also found success in terms of numbers. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, whose then-President Jerry Falwell Jr. championed Donald Trump’s White House run in 2016, boasted its highest enrollment in both online and residential programs in fall 2022.
Trump also held a campaign rally at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where enrollment nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020, thanks in part to new online degree offerings.
“In a general sense, at conservative colleges, I’ve seen them become more explicitly partisan,” Matthew Warner, a critical cultural scholar who previously taught at Hillsdale and Liberty, told media. He said that political identity is increasingly reflected in their student bodies.
“I think that as institutions have become more politically vocal and more partisan in how they market themselves — when Hillsdale College started advertising with Rush Limbaugh, for example — what you end up getting is a larger portion of the student body that’s coming for specific reasons … year on year on year, more of the freshman class was already politically aligned with the public reputation of the college.”
Leadership at other Christian colleges could be following suit. In October 2021, faculty at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, voted no confidence in their new president, Gerson Moreno-Riaño, the day before his inauguration, citing a culture of “fear and suspicion” and his alleged opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Moreno-Riaño, who previously served in executive leadership at Regent University, wrote an article in 2020 calling today’s college classrooms “myopically fixated on the perspectives of the oppressed.”
Hawk believes Palm Beach Atlantic’s leadership is also on the path to partisanship. Before she graduated in 2017, she told media, it was “obvious” that it “leaned conservative,” but it “wasn’t necessarily a hostile environment” to non-conservatives. That changed, she said, in 2020 when the university honored Melania Trump as that year’s “Woman of Distinction.”
Conservative politics isn’t the only thing uniting these schools. Several, including Liberty, Grove City and Palm Beach Atlantic, don’t offer tenure (except at Liberty’s law school, where it’s required for accreditation). And Regent, Liberty and Cornerstone have all seen layoffs that allegedly targeted faculty and staff who didn’t align with leadership’s politically driven mission.
Many Christian colleges are trying to be defined by their faith, not politics, and to offer an education rooted in theology and open to people of all political viewpoints. But in today’s political climate, argues Andrea Turpin, a Christian historian of religion in American higher education and professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, simply having a “political spread” can get an institution accused of losing its identity.
“That’s what I see happening here at Palm Beach, that’s what happened at Grove City,” said Turpin. “There were individual people or classes that were exploring the connection of the faith with issues that have gotten coded as politically left in the contemporary American context.”
When donors, parents and other stakeholders apply labels like “CRT” indiscriminately, even broad lectures on racial justice are flagged as indoctrination. This is especially the case in Christian higher education, argues psychologist and educator Christina Edmondson, where there’s a risk of “this conversation being funneled through this cheat-sheet of labeling things quickly as either right or wrong, biblical or unbiblical.”
Edmondson acknowledged that many Christian colleges are financially dependent on churches and other outside funders to keep the lights on. But, she said, it’s in the vulnerable times that Christian colleges discover what they really stand for.
“That’s when you can demonstrate what I believe to be the best of the institutions, this Christian courageous tradition of not being controlled by dollars, but seeing oneself as standing for justice and righteousness, come what may,” she said.
Kathryn Post is a writer living in Washington D.C. She is a graduate of Calvin College and an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine.
14 thoughts on “‘Woke Wars’ Infiltrate Christian Colleges, Prof Under Fire for Racial Justice Unit”
I signed the petition. Thanks for the excellent reporting (as always) and op ed by Jemar Tisby. Love his book.
Perhaps someone could define “racial justice”? Exactly what is it?
First one must define race and then justice.
Race is how one views themselves and how others view you. There is no biological basis for Race. It is a social construct.
Justice is a little bit easier. It is demanding others are held to my standards, while I am held to none.
Why are some so afraid of studying history or even just other people’s stories… this ‘woke’ panic in the church is doing untold damage. If you don’t want to ever ‘feel’ bad on account of history stories then you’ll need to stop reading the Bible.
Nobody is afraid of studying history. The whole “__________phobia” craze put out by liberal leftists is their way of handling the fact that many people in our country still hold to Biblical values. Those who do are definitely not afraid. Rather, many are angry. Fear and anger are not synonymous. It is not okay to present history from only one perspective. That is the problem with the woke crowd – many only see things from their own limited perspective and are unwilling to even contemplate history from God’s perspective: People are sinners in need of a savior.
Very interesting take, Cynthia.
I think the problem is that history was always presented from one take (our founding fathers are flawless heroes, George Washington never lied, etc), and people are mad another one is being introduced (despite writing “all men are created equal” in our documents, our founding fathers fell short).
And this problem will continue until people accept that all events have multiple takes. Just like we can hear the same argument from multiple sides, and talk to witnesses who all saw different things from the same event – history has multiple perspectives. And ALL deserve to be heard, discussed, debated and considered.
Example: I have heard WW2 vets speak, talking about returning home from the war in the mid 40’s to “the best era in American history”. Well, at that time, Black vets came home to a country they fought for that STILL didn’t give them the right to vote and were often refused service in restaurants due to segregation laws. They hardly call that “the best era in American history.” Instead of fighting about who is “right”, why can’t we talk about both perspectives?
History is full of humans – none were perfect, all had different perspectives and opinions. Let’s stop cherry picking the narratives we think deserve to be taught because “we like them.”
Unfortunately, I can’t really speak with wisdom when it comes to how American history has been taught. I grew up in other countries from age 8 until college. I have studied Dutch history in detail, British history in detail, South African history in detail, and World History in college.
What I can say is this: Certain historical FACTS are indisputable and non-negotiable. How people interpret those facts varies across cultures, religions, ethnicities, etc. People only get into trouble when they start altering factual data and events to fit their personal agendas. Trying to erase history is another way people may attempt to insert agenda where it does not belong. Holocaust-deniers come to mind…
Perhaps your experiences in the United States have been less positive than my own. I am not a person of color, so I have felt incredibly blessed to live here. Having lived in southern Africa, I can tell you that this country offers far more to its citizens when it comes to infrastructure and healthcare. I can also tell you that the human heart is desperately wicked, as Jesus confirms, and it can only be changed with God’s help. This means that, absent God, people will continue to discriminate against others based on skin color, class, education, etc. All attempts to change the human heart without God are doomed to failure.
I know you already know this.
In conclusion, my favorite way to learn history is from primary sources, written by people who actually lived through the events being studied.
But… it’s those primary sources (African American-Native American stories/perspectives) who the anti-woke crowd says they don’t want to hear from! It’s primary sources, which includes the written, spoken, recorded perspectives of black people throughout the history of the US that the anti-woke crowd gets uncomfortable with… It’s those very sources that are taught in diversity / black history, and racial justice courses & classes and that snowflake white parents complain about! You can’t have it both ways… If you want to listen to primary sources then you’re going to hear stories that implicate / expose many (not all) white people in America! – for their segregationism, attitudes of superiority, etc… I’m sorry, but if say you want to listen / read primary sources, then you will have to read / listen to the very things the anti-woke / woke panic crowd very specifically and often loudly does NOT want to listen to/watch/read… But if you don’t want to hear those uncomfortable stories, then you’ll have to most certainly stay away from especially primary sources!
Sometimes I like to consult the dictionary.
Woke: past tense and past participle of WAKE
Wake: a. To cease to sleep; become awake
US slang: aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues
Woke antonyms: lulled, hypnotized, mesmerized
I’m not sure what your saying when you say “…is their way of handling the fact that many people in our country still hold to Biblical values…” What Biblical value prohibits me or you from listening to the stories and perspectives of African Americans / Native Americans?
To my knowledge, no Biblical value prohibits you or me from listening to the stories and perspectives of anyone. That said, wisdom teaches Christians to use God’s principles as a measuring rod when it comes to interpretation. For example, it is fine to read Hitler’s personal diary, but it is not fine to teach that he should be admired for his Fascist principles. Similarly, it is fine to read Malcom X’s personal views, but it is not fine to adhere to his hatred of whites.
Does this make sense? I think the line many wise Christians are drawing is the one I have drawn elsewhere: Teaching and indoctrinating are not the same thing. Teaching involves leading students to a place where they can think on their own and draw their own conclusions. It is an art that turns students into thinkers. Indoctrination, on the other hand, involves getting students to believe what you want them to believe. For example, teaching students about Critical Race Theory is far different from teaching them to believe in its tenets.
Christian values never involve belittling others because of skin color. This principle/value applies to ALL skin colors. So, when students are taught that they are oppressors because they happen to be white, Christians should rightly object on the grounds that Jesus himself taught that all are sinners regardless of skin color.
Cynthia, I appreciate the thoughtful reply. I can agree with a lot you say here. I am skeptical though that everyone who waves the “woke” flag/accusation at profs, at classes, at corporate seminars etc knows for sure that the thing they are critiquing is “indoctrination” vs “teaching”. I totally agree that the latter should be the aim and the better choice. But in most cases that I’ve heard of where the “woke” epithet/charge is thrown at something, the accusers are most often hearing about things second-hand or even further disconnected; generally they’re not actually participants or students in a class / course! I would include parents of children in a class… If I were a parent, before complaining to the admin. I would want to confirm in some way (talk to prof at length / sit in on / look at syllabi etc) that what my child is claiming, like “indoctrination” is in fact true… My suspicion is that in this case and most others, that isn’t happening. And so the panic and rumors and unfounded accusations intensify and spread (And today’s social media makes this 10x worse).
Hope that makes sense; I will admit a deep cynicism of anything coming from the christian religious culture war side these days… I just don’t believe much of anything they say, unless they can say upfront that they experienced something firsthand and have some documentation / etc that can back up their claims. I also don’t trust their definitions of things either… ex “woke” or even “teaching” vs “indoctrination”… From what I can gather their definition of “indoctrination” is very fuzzy and broad. It pretty much includes anything they don’t like or want to hear or that makes them uncomfortable in any way…
Funny how evangelicals can’t handle the truth. It’s no surprise they’re trying to crack down on it.
Jesus once described himself as “the way, the TRUTH, and the life…” (John 14:6).
Why do you think he did that? Could it have anything to do with the fact that human beings need his help to discern what is true and what is not?
Jesus wanted to clarify that he is the only one you can trust when it comes to facts. If someone is telling you to believe anything that counteracts what the Bible, as God’s word, teaches, BEWARE.
All truth is God’s truth. Truth cannot be racist. There’s no such thing as “your truth” or “my truth.”
There is only truth. God’s people can handle the truth. Can you?
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