An Interview With CCCU Leadership on Racial Justice and LGBTQ+ Inclusion | Sojourners

An Interview With CCCU Leadership on Racial Justice and LGBTQ+ Inclusion

Palm Beach Atlantic University after a rainy morning on August 24, 2017, in West Palm Beach, Fla.  Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy

Over the course of 2023, two professors at Christian colleges and universities — Julie Moore of Taylor University and Sam Joeckel of Palm Beach Atlantic University — alleged that they lost their jobs after teaching on racial justice in the classroom. (Moore settled with Taylor; Joeckel is suing PBAU, citing discrimination and retaliation.)

Sojourners reported on these conflicts and others at schools that are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU is an 185-member institution that supports Christian higher education and requires its voting members to affirm four “Christian distinctives,” including a prohibition of sex outside of heterosexual marriage and a commitment to “strive for humble and courageous action that honors the unity of the human race, values ethnic and cultural diversity, and addresses the injustices of racism.”

But as Sierra Lyons reported for Sojourners, while the CCCU has taken an active, public role in the membership status of schools that hire faculty in same-sex marriages, the CCCU has not taken a similar role when schools are accused of firing or letting go of faculty who emphasize racial justice.

At the time of reporting, the CCCU did not provide an interview regarding racism and racial justice among its institutions, instead providing Sojourners with a statement that it “supports our member institutions and their individual missions as they carry out the Lord’s work on their campuses. The CCCU does not make decisions dictating curricula or how it is taught at our campuses.”

Besides the statement provided to Sojourners and other outlets, the CCCU has not made statements regarding Moore or Joeckel’s complaints.

After publication, Amanda Staggenborg, the CCCU’s chief communications officer, reached out to Sojourners, writing that the CCCU has not offered “silence but a clear position” in its statement about not involving itself in personnel decisions.

She emphasized work that the CCCU has done to support diversity efforts on its campuses, writing that it was “a mistake to identify the CCCU’s organizational decision or position as silent when there are many examples of institutional support for diversity.”

Staggenborg agreed to an interview with Sojourners associate news editor Mitchell Atencio, to discuss the CCCU’s role in helping its institutions “address the injustices of racism,” its policies which restrict hiring faculty in same-sex marriages, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How does the CCCU see its mission, and how has that mission evolved over the last decade, if at all?

Amanda Staggenborg, CCCU: Our mission remains the same. Our mission is to advocate for Christian higher education, and we advocate on Capitol Hill through the judicial rulings and judicial suits that we’re involved with.

We advocate in the legislative space. And we communicate that mission with our member institutions while supporting their mission. As far as how that’s evolved over the past several years, we have remained steadfast in faith an applying faith to knowledge, faith to intellect, understanding that a college experience has to — in a Christian setting — infuse that faith with whatever vocation is being chosen. It’s not about just the intellect or the knowledge that’s gained in a college experience; it’s about the faith that one brings.

We’re serious about the implications of our faith intellectually, we’re working within constructive and measurable frameworks for that, and we value constructive dialogue. And that dialogue — regarding societal issues, cultural issues, something along those lines — is what’s changing, not really our mission.

What most drastically or most prominently has changed in that dialogue in recent years?

We’re very serious about diversity. We have made great strides in diversity initiatives over the past 25 years — ethnic, cultural, racial diversity. In 1995, the average CCCU institution’s student body was about 82 percent white and fast forward to 2021, and now 57 percent are white. There’s a long way to go, but there’s a jump in Hispanic, African American, Asian American, American Indian, Pacific Islander students.

Part of the conversation, and what strides we’ve been making, are around diversity. Our schools have been open to those conversations and that dialogue and that welcoming space.

I know that part of that work is not just diversity, but racial reconciliation, which is part of your advocacy work. Can you tell me more about some of the CCCU’s racial reconciliation initiatives or advocacy work?

We have an entire website dedicated to our diversity initiatives. We have our diversity conference that helps inform and train leaders in diversity, [and] professional diversity offices about how to communicate with their stakeholders on campus. How do we talk about racial justice in the classroom? How do we make someone feel as if they’re in a welcoming environment? And because diversity and talking about diversity is so prevalent right now, the CCCU is committed to maintaining those spaces for those diversity officers.

We care deeply about racial justice, and we support the campus efforts to identify how racism has affected, impacted, and shaped the work of Christian higher education. One of our institutions, just most recently, released a report acknowledging their racial history over the past 150 years. And we welcome those kinds of conversations. We want to have those hard conversations.

One of the sub-criterion for governing and associate members of the CCCU is that they “strive for humble and courageous action that honors the unity of the human race, values ethnic and cultural diversity, and addresses the injustices of racism.”

What does the CCCU define as present-day injustices of racism that your governing and associate members are supposed to strive to address?

I think that the present day injustices are, among a Christian university, the same as any other secular higher education or organization deals with: being sure that we have a safe space, understanding that if there is some sort of racist or racial component happening that is addressed at the university level, and ensuring that everyone within our institutions abides by a Christian standard of love.

I would think that any kind of racial injustice is one that unfairly categorizes or identifies someone that would then lead to prejudicial actions against them.

And what that looks like is, it could be a comment, it could be something much larger as far as a macro cultural issue, like affirmative action, or it could be seen as something that schools deal with, in terms of politics or in terms of language. Those being addressed at the university level, it varies, but at the CCCU on a national level, we take a look at racial injustice, we speak out against it, we inform [our members] based on what’s happening on Capitol Hill, and based on different Supreme Court decisions. We then guide our schools towards a path of messaging, or if they have questions about how to deal with something, we are always there as a resource for them.

That’s a helpful answer, and it ties into the last year where, broadly speaking, CCCU schools that have come under accusations from former faculty, students, and employees for the way that they’ve treated racial justice issues most prominently, obviously Julie Moore and Sam Joeckel.

What does the CCCU see as its role in addressing, responding to, or engaging in those sort of tensions?

When these situations came out, the CCCU statement was clear in the sense that we do not involve ourselves and personnel matters at the universities especially if there is a non-tenured professor — looking at Sam Joeckel’s case — having an end come to his employment or not getting another contract. We can’t step in and involve ourselves or engage in that investigation if there is some sort of discrepancy about why he was fired.

The CCCU stance is that no matter what, we protect the mission of Christian higher education, but we also stand by the mission of each individual school. So, Palm Beach Atlantic University, we recognize that they make their own policies. We recognize that they do stand by the CCCU biblical standards of membership. Aside from that, we cannot become involved because we aren’t the personnel police, right? We don’t involve ourselves when people are being let go, laid off, fired, or even choose to quit. We believe that’s something between that individual and their institution. I was a professor in Christian education for over a decade and I can tell you that if there was any situation that happened between the dean or the provost, there’s a lot in there, right? There’s a lot to unpack. There’s a lot of details.

So, the CCCU does not want to get involved in those details because the fact of the matter is we might not know everything while it’s being investigated.

Following up on the idea that the CCCU does not get involved in personnel matters, I think a lot of people see the CCCU’s membership policy around sex being for marriage between one man and one woman, as “policing” personnel decisions of schools. Why does the CCCU see that criterion as not being involved in personnel decisions?

We don’t see it as being involved in an active investigation or a personnel decision. Are you talking about Seattle Pacific University?

I’m not talking about Seattle Pacific specifically. I’m more directly thinking, if a CCCU school did hire a faculty member in a same-sex marriage, the school’s membership in the CCCU would be at risk, right? So, isn’t that the CCCU involving itself in personnel decisions?

No. It’s a little different because when you have a standard of marriage between a man and a woman — and that is something that we hold dear. Our Christian worldview is that God created humanity. We don’t believe that diversity is an either/or. You can be diverse and you can have a Christian worldview. So, we might not affirm LGBTQ+ practices, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t value their thought or input or diversity.

Now, if a school says: “We aren’t going to hire a faculty member, because they aren’t going to fit in with our lifestyle agreement,” that’s their right. They can do that as a school.

If there is a firing that happens as a result of something the professor or the faculty member has deemed as unfair dismissal, those are two different things. One is a policy based on your standard and right to hire who the best person is for that particular role, according to your Christian standard. The other is having to do with employment law.

I want to ask more specifically about this. Can CCCU schools employ faculty who affirm same-sex marriage?

It’s a broad-based question. We believe in a biblical traditional marriage of between a man and a woman. We believe that all of our members — and it’s in our requirements as well — also believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. And our schools take that very seriously and we take that seriously.

I’m not asking about faculty who are in a same-sex marriages; I’m asking about faculty who theologically affirm same-sex marriage, or faculty who disagree with the CCCU’s definition of marriage being between one man and one woman. And I don’t think it’s a secret that CCCU schools do have faculty who affirm same-sex marriage, right?

We live in a pluralistic society of people with a lot of different viewpoints and different personalities. And we respect that. But that doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them.

The follow up question is this: If a school can be a good-standing member of the CCCU while having faculty who affirm same-sex marriage, but cannot be a CCCU member if those faculty themselves were gay and had someone who was interested in marrying them, then isn’t that getting involved in personnel decisions?

No, because again, a personnel decision based on someone being let go, or a contract not being renewed for whatever reason, that is a personnel decision for the individual; a policy decision is a different thing.

A policy decision on a university campus could tell professors: “Hey, we’re not going to talk about XYZ in the classroom,” or “You have to abide by a lifestyle agreement of some kind.” And that is a policy decision.

We do believe in academic freedom. We do believe that professors can teach within their intellectual framework as best they can, and that’s one of the reasons why we can’t speak to these cases that are happening, because there’s so much more that might have been happening besides “academic freedom vs. a Christian university.”

But these are personnel policy decisions, right? You talked about these as lifestyle agreements, but these are policy decisions about what personnel these colleges won’t or can’t have.

Not having seen a lot of the personnel decisions or the policy documents, I’m not sure how well I could speak to that. In my own experience, I was never told what I could or could not teach.

I was told to hold myself to a high standard, a high Christian standard, a moral standard. And I think that’s more common than not among our institutions. I don’t think that there’s anyone telling a faculty member, “This is what you can teach, this is what you can’t teach; this is what you can say, this is what you can’t say.” I’ve never experienced that, and I think that Christian institutions are incredibly well-rounded places for conversations.

So, I don’t think that’s happening as much as perhaps the public might perceive that it is.

Previous Sojourners reporting said that the professor’s tenure was over because of one complaint from a parent. You don’t know if that’s true or not. If the assumption is that there’s more detail behind that, we just can’t comment on that.

Has the CCCU considered doing its own investigating? I assume that if there were reports that a CCCU school hired faculty in same-sex marriages, you wouldn’t just dismiss their membership, you’d do some investigation.

We would have a conversation with the school’s leadership and ask what their policies are, or new policies would be if there are new ones. We’re blessed enough that we have great relationships with all the leadership of all of our institutions. So, if we have questions, we can easily ask.

Have you asked questions of leaders of Palm Beach Atlantic University, Taylor University, or Houghton University?

I haven’t been involved in those conversations.

I’m asking if the CCCU has had conversations with those schools.

I am sure that those conversations have been had, but I can’t speak to that.

Does the CCCU have a position on nondisclosure agreements for faculty leaving CCCU institutions?

We don’t have a position on nondisclosure agreements. We believe that, if there is a nondisclosure agreement that is signed, it’s between that institution and that person who’s involved, and we don’t step into that or get involved in that.

One of the reasons that I wrote the response to Sojourners was because your reporting said, “as some Christian schools remove members of their faculty who have taught courses that address racial injustice, the CCCU has been silent.”

And we are not silent. We’ve never been silent. We say many things — some that aren’t available at the time of requests on social media, or that are well thought out and released at a later time. It is a mistake to identify the CCCU’s organizational decision or position as silent when there are many examples of institutional support for diversity.

We don’t make decisions on how curricula are taught on campuses. And that’s a clear position that we have. It might not be the one that people want in a knee-jerk reaction, but that is because we are an association that has over 185 campuses. And, as I mentioned, it would be a violation of employment and privacy laws that protect those individuals for us to be involved.

You’re right that the CCCU put out a statement, but the CCCU doesn’t have a specific comment about PBAU not renewing Sam Joeckel’s contract or Taylor letting go of Julie Moore?

That’s correct. We’re following the rule of law and respecting those investigatory practices and the evolving nature of whatever issue is happening.

Can you tell me more specifically how you understand the law prohibits the CCCU from commenting on those matters?

There is an active investigation that’s happening. While there is a fact-finding component to that investigation to that termination, it’s not something that we’re going to infringe on in any way. Those privacy laws and those employment laws that are in place protect those individuals and those schools. We want to abide by that.

It’s not up to the school or to the individual to tell us anything.

Has the CCCU reached out to Sam Joeckel or Julie Moore?

I can’t speak to that either. I don’t know the answer to that.

The reason I ask is that I don’t quite understand why the CCCU couldn’t get involved, in a behind-the-scenes manner, and simply say something like, “We’re aware of Professor Joeckel and Professor Moore’s complaints; we’ve reached out to the institutions and to the former faculty members to better understand the conflict.” And if they don’t want to talk with you, they don’t have to. But in the case of someone like Sam Joeckel, he’s done a lot of media, and he has said the CCCU has been “invisible” throughout this process. You’ve talked about wanting to respect the people involved, and some of them, I think, would like to hear from the CCCU.

It’s a situation that involves a lot of different people and an institution that’s been accused of not renewing their contract, in their words, in an unfair capacity. And not knowing the details, it would be presumptuous of us to comment.

If there’s something that’s active going on, we are not going to be involved in that, because of the details we’re not privy to.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Oct. 26, to correct that the CCCU is the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, not the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.