To catch a horrifying glimpse of the whitewashed future of higher education in Florida, look no further than Sam Joeckel's pink slip.
Palm Beach Atlantic University unceremoniously dumped the long-time English professor last week. All it took was one phone call of complaint about one writing assignment to end his 20-year career.
The complaint alleged racial indoctrination. Joeckel never met his accuser.
It's worth noting the precise nature of what the Christian university judged to be Joeckel's sin. He asked students to write an essay about their own beliefs on racial injustice. They did not have to agree with him. In fact, he said, he has helped students write essays that he personally disagreed with, because he viewed his role to help students craft the best possible essays explaining their own beliefs.
Never mind that PBAU is a private university and thus technically free from the efforts of Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers to scrub the concept of race from the hearts and minds of students. But any university, public or private, wants to be on a governor's good side, and DeSantis participated in a "fireside chat" at the West Palm Beach campus in February.
Sycophancy flourishes in a climate of fear.
These days, no school in Florida is free from it: fear of angry donors, fear of attention-seeking politicians, and of course, fear of waking up one day to the same treatment PBAU dished out to Joeckel. A job well done -- then abruptly lost.
Public reaction to Joeckel's firing has been much too muted from other educators, legislators, students and parents.
Silencing professors is one way to ensure that no one in a Florida classroom has to think uncomfortable thoughts about race. But just as a timid PBAU was not taking any chances, neither is Tallahassee. DeSantis is the lead cheerleader for the curriculum of Hillsdale College, another private Christian school known for its free hand in rewriting American history on race.
Among Hillsdale's lesson plan nuggets: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to charge hearts and minds, not laws about voting and lunch counters and such. King believed exactly the opposite, of course, and he made that clear in speeches available on YouTube, though it probably won't be found in any Hillsdale course syllabus.
But why wait until college to rewrite history?
Rosa Parks' courageous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 made her a civil rights icon.
In the Florida-friendly version recently offered up by a publisher angling for a state contract for K-12 social studies textbooks, Parks was "told to move to a different seat," with no other context, and her race is not even mentioned.
The publisher, Studies Weekly, has apologized, saying employees "severely overreacted" while trying to please Florida.
Interestingly, textbook giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt isn't bidding this year on Florida's social studies textbook business. The company told The New York Times that its decision had nothing to do with new state race-instruction laws.
All the same, the company is washing its hands of Florida for now.
That, too, is a preview of things to come.
DeSantis likes to point out that Florida universities rank among the top 50 best public schools in the nation. The University of Miami Miller Medical School, for instance, is one of the nation's best research medical schools, according to U.S. News and World Report rankings. It is also one of the most diverse.
But what world-class research scientist would risk taking a job there knowing that she might be barred from collecting race-based health data?
The University of Florida Levin School of Law is also one of the best in the country. But what constitutional scholar wants to teach Brown vs. Board of Education in a state where his right to free speech begins stalling out at the word race?
Although Florida consistently claims two or three spots in top public university rankings, the governor rarely mentions that six of the top 10 sports are just as consistently in California, which has no anti-speech, anti-reading and anti-thinking laws.
Maybe that left coast state already knows what Florida and Palm Beach Atlantic do not: A higher ed system that clamps earmuffs on its students, gags scholars and kicks professors to the curb based on a shadow accusation still has an awful lot to learn.
-- South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 20