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A Florida professor says his contract was terminated for teaching about racial justice

Sam Joeckel, a longtime English professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, says his contract was terminated early after an accusation that his lessons on racial justice were "indoctrinating" students.

For years, Joeckel's class included a unit on the Black experience in the U.S., where he touched on the work of historic figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, as well as long-standing racial disparities in mass incarceration and educational attainment, as WLRNpreviously reported.

But recently, administrators took issue with Joeckel's curriculum, saying that they received a complaint from a student's parent about his lessons related to race, the professor said. Joeckel's contract was subsequently put under review last month. A few days ago, the instructor learned his contract would be terminated early.

"They did this for a clear reason: my decision to teach and speak about racial justice," he wrote in a statement on Instagram on Thursday.

Palm Beach Atlantic University is a Christian college in West Palm Beach, Fla. As of 2021, nearly 3,700 students were attending the school, either in person or online. White students make up a little over half the student population, while 10% identify as Black and 17% identify as Hispanic.

The fallout at the university comes during a campaign by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis against what he calls "woke indoctrination" in education.

During his tenure, DeSantis has worked to set limits on how the topics of race and gender are discussed in K-12 education, as well as banprograms promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in state colleges. Though Palm Beach Atlantic University is a private institution, Joeckel believes the school has been impacted by the state's political climate.

"The timing of this is not a coincidence as we are dealing with an 'anti-woke' crusade from Governor DeSantis and other far-right politicians and activists," he wrote on social media. "I believe this goes against the Christian beliefs that I hold closely, and that PBA claims to hold closely."

"I most definitely think that what is happening here is this 'anti-woke ideology' is now infiltrating even a Christian university like Palm Beach Atlantic University," he told WLRN earlier this month.

The school did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment on Joeckel's contract. But in an internal memo written last month and obtained by The Palm Beach Post, Provost Chelly Templeton said the school was investigating Joeckel's curriculum to "better understand the pedagogical rationale for including these extensive lectures in a Composition II class."

She added, "It is important that the Composition II objectives remain the focus of the course."

Students and alumni have condemned the discipline measure, arguing that the school is going against its own values of unity and academic freedom. A petitiondemanding the renewal of Joeckel's contract received over 2,000 signatures as of Saturday afternoon.

In an accompanied open letter to the university president Debra Schwinn, supporters wrote: "Restricting much needed conversations around race is — at its core — racism and discrimination itself."

Joeckel said racial justice has been part of his course for 12 years, calling it a "perfect topic" to teach at a Christian school.

"The pursuit of racial justice goes hand in hand with the overarching message of the gospel," he told WLRN earlier this month.

Joeckel, who has taught at the school for over 20 years, said he plans to pursue legal action against the school.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.
Kate Payne