(RNS) — A veteran English professor at a leading evangelical university has lost her job — in part because a school official deemed her writing classes too liberal on the issue of race.
Julie Moore, an associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Taylor University in Indiana, said she learned in a meeting with the school’s provost earlier this year that her contract was not renewed.
When pressed for details, Taylor Provost Jewerl Maxwell said there had been complaints about assigned readings on racial justice in Moore’s classes. Maxwell named one author as problematic in particular, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Religion News Service.
“Jemar Tisby is the main focus,” Maxwell told Moore.
Tisby, a historian, is the author of “Color of Compromise,” a New York Times bestselling book that details the way Christian faith and racism have been intertwined in American history. Once a popular speaker and writer about issues of race in evangelical circles, Tisby has become controversial with conservative Christians worried about “wokeness.”
Last year, the board of Grove City College, a conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania, issued a report that criticized diversity training and programs at the school as “woke” — which has become a catchall pejorative for all things liberal, especially regarding race. The report also said it had been a mistake for Tisby to speak at a Grove City chapel service.
During her meeting, Moore protested, pointing out that while she quoted from Tisby — whom she said she admires — in her syllabus, she’d not assigned any writings by him to students. Her protest went unheeded as Maxwell told her he did not want to debate specifics, according to the recording.
“I felt I was in the twilight zone,” said the 58-year-old Moore, who said she’d taught about racial justice during her composition classes since she first began teaching in the 1990s. Moore came to Taylor in 2017 after teaching at Cedarville University and the historically Black Wilberforce University, both private Christian schools in Ohio.
At Taylor, she assigned students readings such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letter to My Son” and Claudia Rankine’s New York Times essay “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning.” Moore’s hope was to help her students, most of them white, develop some racial literacy and to see how the issue of racial justice related to their faith.
That was particularly important, she said, because Taylor is in a part of the state with a history of racism, including the 1930 lynching of two Black teenagers in nearby Marion, Indiana, that drew a crowd of spectators. Many of her students, she said, knew little of that history.
Now she fears the school’s leadership would prefer not to talk about issues of race.
She compared her situation to that of Samuel Joeckel, an English professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University who was fired after a parent reportedly complained he had been “indoctrinating” students at the Christian college by teaching about racial justice.
“I am a faculty purge,” Moore said, saying she worries faculty who teach about systemic racism or the connection between racial justice and faith will no longer be welcome at the school.
Taylor declined to comment on the specifics of Moore’s situation, saying it was a personnel matter.
“With any contract non-renewal, there are many factors that impact an organization’s decision,” the university said in a statement. “We understand and empathize with a faculty member’s disappointment when a contract renewal decision does not go as they had hoped. We are fully dedicated to embracing and celebrating diversity as an intentional community striving to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which transcends all ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, and national divisions.”
After news about Moore’s situation became public, Taylor President Michael Lindsay sent out a letter to the campus community, saying the school was “fully dedicated to embracing and celebrating diversity.” He also announced the school would hold two forums — one for students, one for faculty and staff — to address concerns about the school’s approach to diversity.
Faced with declining enrollments, shaky finances and increasingly polarized donors and alums, Christian colleges have found themselves in a struggle for survival in recent years, said John Hawthorne, a sociologist who taught in Christian higher education for decades.
Many of those colleges were predominantly white for most of their history. As they’ve worked to recruit more ethnically diverse student populations, administrations have also created multicultural programs to serve those students. That’s led to a pushback from conservative students and donors — especially due to the national controversy over critical race theory, an academic approach to understanding systemic racism.
“Now you have people saying you have to disband all of that,” Hawthorne said.
That, Tisby told RNS, has made writers like himself “persona non grata in conservative Christian circles.”
Tisby, who now teaches at Simmons College of Kentucky, wrote about Moore this week on his Substack newsletter. In an interview, he said some Christian schools are in a “race to the right” to appease conservative supporters. Others saw the controversy over his work at Grove City and, he believes, have decided that having substantive discussions about race is too much of a public relations headache.
“My disappointment is for the professors who are the casualties of these cancel culture models,” said Tisby. “They’re faithful teachers and they don’t deserve this.”
The move to become more conservative may work in the short term, said Hawthorne. But he worries about the future of schools like Taylor.
“They are playing a game of musical chairs,” he said. “They think the only way to survive as a Christian school is to be politically conservative.”
English professor and author Karen Swallow Prior, who taught in Christian higher education for decades, said Christian colleges “cease to be distinctively Christian” when they are driven more by external pressures than by their statements of faith.
“Times are tough across the board in higher education,” said Prior, an RNS columnist. “Christian schools need now more than ever to stay on mission and to not give in to political forces that simply want to exploit education to gain points for their own side. Christians must be about education, not indoctrination.”
Moore said she was aware students have complained about her classes in the past. Those complaints, she said, came up during her most recent review in 2021. Thomas Jones, then serving as interim provost, suggested she add readings from “a broader range of perspectives” in her class, including those from more conservative sources like the Heritage Foundation.
In an interview, Moore said she checked with the chair of her department about how to proceed and said she was told those were suggestions, not requirements.
Both the chair of her department and her dean supported the renewal of her contract at that time, according to copies of letters of support reviewed by RNS.
Moore also said she redesigned her class with some of the suggestions from the review process in mind. But she did not add more conservative readings.
That became an issue in January 2023, when she received an email asking her to come to Maxwell’s office for a meeting. There, Maxwell criticized Moore for not following Jones’ suggestions, which he saw as requirements. Moore told him that if they’d been requirements, she would have followed them.
“I kept saying, nobody told me that was a mandate — and that I would lose my job if I didn’t add those sources,” she said in the interview.
Maxwell had come to Taylor as provost in December of 2021, joining Lindsay’s administration. The two had worked together previously at Gordon College. Lindsay had succeeded former Taylor President Paul Lowell Haines, who resigned due to controversy over his decision to invite then-Vice President Mike Pence to speak at the school’s graduation. While the board supported the invitation, a number of faculty and students objected.
Moore said Lindsay — whose tenure at Gordon was marked with controversy over his conservative policies, especially about sexuality — has changed Taylor’s culture.
Moore came to the school in 2017 after leaving Cedarville University, which took a turn in a more conservative direction about a decade ago, leading to a faculty exodus.
Now she worries something similar may happen at Taylor.
She’s also worried about her own future. The news that she was about to lose her job came as a shock and left her with few options. Jobs for college professors are scarce — especially jobs for older professors.
“I’m too old to be on the job market,” she said in an interview. “And too young to retire.”
During the meeting with Maxwell, whom she knew from her days at Cedarville, Moore pleaded to be given one more year to teach at the school so she’d have time to find another job.
“I really need a year so that I can figure out what in the world to do,” she told Maxwell. “I really do. I don’t want to beg but I’m begging. I don’t know what to do.”
Maxwell made no promises.
“I will certainly continue to pray about it,” he told Moore.