‘Woke Wars’ infiltrate Christian colleges, profs under fire for racial justice unit

(RNS) – Against the patriotic backdrop of the US and Florida state flags, Governor Ron DeSantis took the stage at a private Christian university in West Palm Beach, Florida last Wednesday (February 15) to present a new “Digital Bill of Rights “ to imagine. The governor, known for cracking down on diversity, justice and inclusion programs and AP African American studies courses, has also blasted Big Tech for surveillance and censorship.

On the same day, a university English professor was intercepted outside his classroom by school administrators who expressed concerns 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 that his contract renewal letter was being postponed until leadership could review his lessons on racial justice.

According to Joeckel, it is a three-day unit that he teaches in his composition course II for freshmen in Palm Beach Atlantic. A parent reportedly called the university’s president, Debra Schwinn, with concerns about the unit. Joeckel says he’s been teaching for 12 years with no problems.

“It’s about time universities like mine had these difficult conversations,” Joeckel told Religion News Service. “And I worry that the university has succumbed to a political culture that doesn’t allow these conversations to even get out of the gate.”

According to an internal email shared with RNS, the Palm Beach Atlantic provost claims the situation is a dust-raising about pedagogy, not censorship of racial justice education. “The faculty is free to choose a topic that will unify their Composition II course,” the email reads. “But it is important that the goals of Composition II are the focus of the study.” A spokesman for the university did not want to comment on this story and said: “The university does not comment on personnel matters.”

Professor Samuel Joeckel is currently under investigation from Palm Beach Atlantic University, where he teaches, on charges of indoctrination for the way he teaches racial theory in higher education. Photo courtesy of the PBAU website

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 US

Joeckel told Religion News Service he’s adding a racial justice section to his writing class “precisely because I teach at a Christian university.” The unit includes excerpts from Christian historian Jemar Tisby’s “Color of Compromise,” readings by Martin Luther King Jr., and relevant survey data, the professor said. Joeckel said he wants students to come to their own conclusions as they complete essays on the subject.

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“It’s my attempt to do something that the university says it takes very seriously, the integration of belief and learning,” Joeckel said. “It is the work of the gospel as I understand the gospel. If a unit like mine can’t be taught here, we’re in a bad way.”

Over the past week, students and alumni have written a public petition to save Joeckel’s job, with over 1,400 signatures and an open letter to the university’s president urging her to publicly apologize and stand up for academic freedom .

Danielle Hawk, a PBA graduate and former Democratic congressional nominee, believes the university’s treatment of Joeckel is directly related to the political climate in Florida.

“I think it fits into that broader culture, particularly what we’re seeing in the state of Florida right now, with Ron DeSantis and his censorship, whitewashing of race and really, frankly paranoid surveillance of academic institutions. And he does that in private schools and public schools,” Hawk noted.

E Warren Throckmorton, psychology professor at Grove City College. Courtesy of Grove City College

Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor 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 embroiled in a politicized dispute that resulted in a board report acknowledging cases of “CRT endorsement” while clearing the school of “waking up” allegations.

“What the government was doing to raise awareness of social justice and racial awareness was suddenly seen as subversive. Some people were interrogated and worried about what they were teaching,” Throckmorton said.

This year the campus has been bubbling with excitement. Throckmorton said there was “cautious optimism” that last year’s debate would not stifle what is being taught in the classroom. But the online debate is still raging, where stakeholders concerned about CRT interventions have penned another petition bemoaning the college’s direction and calling for the president’s resignation.

According to Throckmorton, “The people who have opposed the current president and the college have argued that colleges like Hillsdale that reject what they call ‘awakening’ are successful. And colleges like Wheaton or Calvin that aren’t like Hillsdale … that take racial justice seriously don’t do it so well.”

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Hillsdale College, a Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan known for its conservative political identity, saw enrollment increase 16% in the fall of 2021 and reported a donation of over $900 million in the same year. The school advertises on Fox News, and in 2020 Donald Trump appointed the school’s president to chair a committee created to curb “anti-American” scholarships.

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 pits one group against other competing groups in divisive power struggles .”

FILE – In this February 24, 2016 file photo, Rev. Pat Robertson listens as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The Christian Broadcasting Network says Pat Robertson is stepping down as host of long-running daily television show “700 Club.” Robertson said in a statement that he last hosted the network’s flagship program on Friday, October 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Other politically conservative Christian colleges were also numerically successful. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, whose then-President Jerry Falwell Jr. championed Donald Trump’s White House run in 2016, had the highest enrollment for both online and residential programs in the fall of 2022. Trump also held a campaign event at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where enrollment nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020, thanks in part to new online college offerings.

“In general, I’ve seen conservative colleges become more overtly partisan,” Matthew Warner, a critical cultural scholar who previously taught at Hillsdale and Liberty, told Religion News Service. He said that political identity is increasingly reflected in their student bodies.

“I think that as institutions have gotten more politically vocal and partisan in how they market themselves — like when Hillsdale College started advertising Rush Limbaugh — what you end up getting is a larger segment of the student body that for certain reasons… more and more of the freshman class coming out year by year was already politically connected to the public image of the college.”

Leadership in other Christian colleges could follow suit. In October 2021, the 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 distrust” and his alleged rejection of diversity and justice and inclusion efforts.

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Moreno-Riaño, a formerly senior manager at Regent University, wrote an article in 2020 calling today’s college classrooms “short-sightedly fixated on the perspectives of the downtrodden.”

Hawk believes Palm Beach Atlantic’s leadership is also on the path to partisanship. Before graduating in 2017, she told RNS it was “obvious” that it was “conservative,” but it was “not necessarily a hostile environment” for non-conservatives. That all changed in 2020, when the university honored Melania Trump as that year’s “Woman of Distinction.”

Conservative politics isn’t the only thing that unites these schools. Some, including Liberty, Grove City, and Palm Beach Atlantic, do not offer tenure (except at Liberty Law School, where it is required for accreditation). And Regent, Liberty, and Cornerstone have all seen layoffs allegedly targeting faculty and staff inconsistent with the leadership’s politically motivated mission.

Many Christian colleges seek to define themselves by their faith rather than politics, offering an education that is rooted in theology and open to people of all political views. But in today’s political climate, argues Andrea Turpin, a Christian historian of religions in American higher education and a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, an institution that simply has a “political spread” can be accused of losing its identity .

The Chapel on the Quad at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Grove City College

“That’s what I see here in Palm Beach, that’s what happened in Grove City,” Turpin said. “There were individuals or classes who explored the connection of faith to issues coded as left-wing in the contemporary American context.”

When donors, parents, and other stakeholders use labels like “CRT” indiscriminately, even broad-based racial justice lectures are labeled as indoctrination. This is particularly the case in Christian higher education, argues psychologist and educator Christina Edmondson, where there is a danger that “this conversation will be guided by this cheat sheet that is quick to label things as right or wrong, biblical or unbiblical.”

Edmondson acknowledged that many Christian colleges depend financially on churches and other outside sponsors to keep the lights going. But, she said, it’s in uncertain times that Christian colleges discover what they really stand for.

“Then you can show what I think is the best of institutions, this Christian courageous tradition of not being controlled by dollars, but seeing yourself as an advocate of justice and uprightness, come what may,” she said.