A Florida College Cited Bullshit Reasons to Dump an Allegedly ‘Woke’ Professor
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After class on Mar. 9, Dr. Samuel Joeckel stepped into his office at Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBAU), as he had done untold times over two decades of teaching English at the private Christian school in Florida. This time, though, his office phone as well as his computer monitor, speakers, and keyboard were missing. “I thought that someone had broken into my office and stolen some of my stuff,” he told The Daily Beast in an email.
In reality, Joeckel had been terminated—his office supplies prematurely removed before his employers passed down the news.
His dismissal was the culmination of an incident that began in late February. As The Daily Beast reported at the time, the renewal of the C.S. Lewis scholar’s contract had been postponed pending a review of his Composition II class’s three-day racial justice unit. In an impromptu after-class meeting on Feb. 15, Joeckel’s dean and provost informed him they were looking into an accusation by a student’s parent that he was “indoctrinating students.”
On Mar. 15, Joeckel officially learned that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. In fact, he’d be terminated early. On top of that, he was reportedly barred from returning to campus. The English professor sees his dismissal as a consequence, ultimately, of his “decision to teach and speak about racial justice.”
Since The Daily Beast spoke with him in late February, Joeckel says he met with PBAU administrators once more, at which time the provost and head of human resources ran through a number of supposed issues with his teaching, which he regards as “smokescreen[s]” for the true motivation behind his termination—teaching “a unit on racial justice that one parent deemed indoctrination.”
Joeckel told The Daily Beast that one such “smokescreen” was an accusation of “faulty pedagogy”—that he had spent “an inordinate amount of class time discussing racial justice in a composition class.” However, as he notes (and as a copy of his syllabus provided to The Daily Beast confirms) the same amount of class time was allotted to racial justice as to the other topics on which his Composition II students could choose to write research essays—comedy and humor, gothic and horror, and gender equality. He had previously taught the racial justice unit, without issue, for 12 years.
Joeckel also noted being accused of running afoul of what he called PBAU’s “anti-gay policy.” According to this PBAU guideline, the school “expects that their students, faculty, and staff will neither engage in nor promote views of sexuality or gender expression that contradicts biblical standards.” Joeckel avers that, while “a member of an LGBTQ-affirming church (and proudly so),” he is “of course aware of the university’s policy, so I do not violate it.”
Lastly, Joeckel recalls that the HR head—“with a straight face”—brought up Joeckel’s use of the word “shit” in the classroom as problematic. (Here, I must emphasize that, despite PBAU’s implicit treatment of its students as impressionable children whose parents can monitor the ideas they are exposed to, they are adults capable of stomaching such language). Joeckel says that, while teaching, he may have used the word “on a rare occasion” for “rhetorical effect.” Its overuse “is linguistically uncreative,” he told The Daily Beast, “I am an English professor after all.”
While PBAU did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the matter, The Daily Beast reached a spokesperson for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities—of which PBAU is a member—which emphasized that the council “does not make decisions dictating curricula or how it is taught at our campuses,” but that “[k]nowing 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.”
But what has PBAU done in firing Joeckel but deny students the opportunity to achieve such an understanding? Moreover, it seems to have done so by allowing the judgment of an individual student’s parent—one among many others who have attended Joeckel’s classes and spoken effusively of his teaching—to render hollow their professed commitment to the rights to teach and learn freely.
Notably, PBAU does not offer tenure. Faculty sign one-year contracts—with veteran professors potentially receiving two- and then three-year contracts. This fact makes Joeckel’s termination an unfortunate testament to a point I have iterated in these pages before: that professors’ academic freedom is largely contingent on their job security—and best protected, then, through faculty collective action and tenure.
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The affair, too, underscores the lunacy that Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ war on “wokeness” in public universities has wrought on the state’s whole higher education system. Although a private university, in targeting and dismissing Joeckel, PBAU is working from the same playbook animating the state government’s anti-woke crusade. After all, this episode was initiated by a parent drawing from the vocabulary of the governor (whose camp defines “wokeness” as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them”).
As Joeckel told The Daily Beast, “The timing of this is not a coincidence” considering the ongoing “‘anti-woke’ crusade from Gov. DeSantis and other far-right politicians and activists.” PBAU, he says “was clearly influenced by this toxic political ideology.” Making these dots even easier to connect, the university—which has faced recent criticism for a perceived pivot to more partisan conservatism—hosted DeSantis for a speaking commitment on the same day Joeckel was told his contract renewal was on hold.
That considered, it is no mystery why this case of over-parenting gone haywire has suspiciously flown under the radar of right-wing commentators, who normally pounce on any academic freedom skirmish—for instance, the termination of an adjunct at Hamline University—but only so long as it offers an opportunity to scold “coddled” and “woke” undergraduates.
It indeed seems that Joeckel’s only “offense” was teaching about racial injustice, and its history, in America. Powerpoint slides he shared with The Daily Beast show that his brief racial justice unit covered how the now-revered (and historically whitewashed) Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the March on Washington, were much-vilified in their time. Other slides highlight contemporary racial disparities in education, policing, and income.
Such lessons are anathema to reactionaries who, in our current moment, are going to worrying lengths to sanitize injustices of the past and ignore those of the present.
Refusing to be a passive casualty to these censorial efforts, Joeckel says he is determined “to fight back,” pursuing his legal options to “show PBA, and other institutions, that they cannot get away with this.”
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