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A Florida Professor Lost His Job After Complaints About His Lessons on Racial Justice

A professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian institution in Florida, had his contract terminated this week after a parent complained to the university president about a racial-justice unit in his course.

The termination of Samuel Joeckel’s position, which he’d held since 2002, touches on issues of academic freedom that have become more fraught as tensions increasingly surround the teaching of race. It also illustrates differing views of what it means to hew to Christian values in higher education.

Joeckel first learned of the concerns about his teaching on February 15, when a dean and the provost met him outside his classroom to say that his contract wouldn’t be renewed until administrators reviewed materials from his composition class. (Palm Beach Atlantic does not offer tenure; veteran faculty members can enter into two- and- three-year letters of agreement that roll over automatically “upon on-going exemplary service,” according to a university FAQ.) A parent had complained that Joeckel was “indoctrinating students,” the dean said.

Last week, Joeckel learned that his contract would not be renewed and, in fact, was being terminated early. His last day as a Palm Beach Atlantic employee was Wednesday, and he’ll be returning to campus Saturday with his wife and son to clean out his office. He’s also pursuing legal action against the university, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Joeckel said he has taught the racial-justice unit for the past 12 years, and while he said it’s often generated “really healthy discussion” in the classroom, no university administrator had voiced concern about it before. “As far as what it was this semester that really turned some student off, that that student then felt compelled to tell their mom or dad, and then their mom or dad felt compelled to call the university president, I don’t know,” Joeckel told The Chronicle.

Joeckel’s termination comes amid a flurry of legislative action in Florida that seeks to limit, at the state’s public institutions, the study of race, gender, and the causes of inequality. And while Palm Beach Atlantic’s status as a private university would exempt it from such legislation, Joeckel says his termination is a product of the political environment.

I believe asking students to engage the issue of racial justice is rooted in the Christian faith. The gospel calls for Christians to speak truth to power.”

“Political forces don’t know the difference between public and private,” he said, noting that the dean of the school of liberal arts and sciences had used the word “indoctrinating” on February 15, when Joeckel asked about the nature of the complaint regarding the racial-justice unit. The dean ended that same encounter, Joeckel said, by saying he had to go prepare for the arrival of Gov. Ron DeSantis; the governor appeared at a campus event that evening.

Two days later, Joeckel said, he was called to a meeting with the dean, at which a human-resources representative from the university was also present. During that meeting, he said, the dean reviewed Joeckel’s syllabus and asked questions about his pedagogy. “They felt that there were some pedagogical weaknesses in the fact that, ‘In a writing course, why are you spending so much time talking about racial justice?’” Joeckel said. But he devotes an equal amount of time to each of the units in the course, and critiques of his pedagogy amounted to “smokescreen tactics” that “obfuscate the obvious,” he said.

“The issue was clearly that I was teaching a unit on racial justice,” Joeckel said. “I’ve been doing this for 21 years. I know my pedagogy, and obviously I know that the focus of a Composition 2 class is on writing and specifically the production of a research essay. My Comp 2 class is oriented around just that, and it always has been.”

‘Provocative and Relevant’

The racial-justice unit is one of four in Joeckel’s class; the others focus on comedy and humor, gothic and horror, and gender equality. Across two class sessions in late January and early February, according to his syllabus, Joeckel gave a lecture on racial justice, covering such topics as the shifts in popular opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. over time, how usage of the term “racism” had evolved as a tool in political strategy, and racial disparities in in-school suspensions, interactions with police, and incarceration, according to materials he shared with The Chronicle.

Students also discussed the introduction to The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, a 2019 book by Jemar Tisby, a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky. In the last of the three class sessions in the unit, students wrote an in-class essay in which they were asked to cite the lecture or the Tisby reading. (Each of the four units followed a similar format.)

The topic of Composition 2 classes at Palm Beach Atlantic are at the professor’s discretion, Joeckel said. At the end of the semester, were he still teaching the course, students would be asked to write a research essay on one of the four units. He deliberately paired two more “intense” topics — racial justice and gender equality — with two “lighter” topics — comedy and humor and gothic and horror — for that reason. “I was just trying to have a balanced approach in terms of topics and themes so that students, regardless of their personalities and intellectual predispositions, could find something in those four units that they can say, ‘I want to write a research essay on that topic,’” Joeckel said.

To Joeckel, including the racial-justice unit provides a “really interesting and provocative and relevant topic” for students, but is also in keeping with Palm Beach Atlantic’s Christian values. The institution, which enrolls about 3,700 graduate and undergraduate students, was created by the pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach in 1968 to counter the youth unrest then roiling the nation’s campuses. The goal, one of the founders said, was “to produce college graduates who would improve the moral climate in America,” according to a video recounting the institution’s history.

“I believe asking students to engage the issue of racial justice is rooted in the Christian faith,” he said. “The gospel calls for Christians to speak truth to power. The gospel calls for Christians to be attentive to the oppressed, the disadvantaged, ‘the least of these.’ As I saw it, for the past 12 years, my racial-justice unit was rooted in the principles that Palm Beach Atlantic University supposedly adheres to.”

A representative of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, of which Palm Beach Atlantic is a member, said she was familiar with the case but, citing “an ongoing investigation and an HR issue,” declined to comment on its specifics. “The CCCU supports our member institutions and their individual missions as they carry out the Lord’s work on their campuses,” Amanda Staggenborg, the council’s chief communications officer, said in an email to The Chronicle. “The CCCU does not make decisions dictating curricula or how it is taught at our campuses. Knowing that all truth is God’s truth, we trust that our students will graduate with a better understanding of themselves and the world around them having been exposed to and challenged by a broad spectrum of academic theories.”

Teaching Freely

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression came to Joeckel’s defense in a February letter sent to Palm Beach Atlantic’s president, Debra A. Schwinn, after Joeckel’s contract renewal was delayed, saying that his treatment violated the university’s own policy, in which it “expresses a firm belief in the rights of a teacher to teach, investigate, and publish freely,” and that the university was bound by its accreditor to uphold those rights.

Courts have previously held that institutions cannot decline to renew a faculty member’s contract as a form of retaliation, and Graham Piro, a senior program officer at FIRE, told The Chronicle on Friday that, based on media reports, it appeared Palm Beach Atlantic may have done just that as retribution for Joeckel’s decision to teach about racial justice. “If that’s true, then that’s a huge problem,” Piro said.

Piro said the Joeckel case is directly linked to DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” Act, which, among other things, bars training or instruction that “compels” a belief that members of one race are morally superior to another, or that makes an individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld an injunction against the act, which has been characterized as still having had a chilling effect, including the removal of potentially controversial books from libraries in elementary and secondary schools. “Palm Beach Atlantic must meet its commitments that it makes to its faculty, even in the midst of intense public pressure to abandon those principles,” Piro said.

Meanwhile, Joeckel’s lawyer, Gabe Roberts, of the Jacksonville-based Scott Law Team, said Palm Beach Atlantic’s wrongdoing was evident. “It’s clear in this situation they terminated his contract early and that race, or in this case, teaching about race was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate the contract,” Roberts said. “If race is a motivating factor in an employment decision, that’s illegal in this country.”

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