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New surveys of Florida colleges, universities fail to support concerns over anti-conservative sentiment

Concerned about what they worried was anti-conservative sentiment on college and university campuses, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers ordered a survey of nearly 2 million students, faculty and staff across the state. Results are in, and they did not go as expected.

Most faculty, instructional staff and administrators who responded described themselves as moderate politically – and more of them described themselves as conservative than liberal. Hardly anyone agreed that endorsing a particular political view would help them be promoted or granted tenure, and more of them agreed than disagreed that their campus was equally tolerant of liberal and conservative ideas and beliefs.

So few students filled out the surveys – fewer than 1% of more than 1.7 million – that the answers the state collected from them were statistically insignificant. 

Nearly 10% of almost 120,000 faculty, instructional staff and administrators responded, despite the state’s faculty labor union encouraging professors not to participate. That is generally considered adequate among survey experts to begin to draw conclusions. Other factors, such as whether faculty answered consistently or whether faculty from different universities responded differently, could affect the survey’s perceived reliability or its statistical significance.

The surveys – which state agencies said cost about $6,500 – were sent to everyone across 12 universities and 28 colleges statewide.

The surveys were rolled out amid a new focus on education, including higher education, by conservative Republicans worried about what was being taught in Florida's classrooms. New laws required tenure professors to undergo five-year reviews and banned professors from asserting in classrooms that institutional racism exists. The law that created the new political surveys also allows students to secretly record their professors for the purpose of filing a free-speech complaint against them. 

At the University of Florida, which briefly banned professors from testifying for plaintiffs in lawsuits against DeSantis, a conservative Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska has been selected as the sole finalist to become the school's next president. Sen. Ben Sasse is expected to visit the campus again Nov. 1. Hundreds of student protesters drove him off a stage during an appearance at the school earlier this week. 

The next round of political ideology surveys will be delivered in about six months. They will be required every year going forward under a law the Republican-led Legislature passed and DeSantis signed last year asking students and faculty about political bias in college classrooms. So far, there is no legal requirement for students or state employees to participate. The surveys, to be completed online, do not ask participants to identify themselves.

Republicans like Rep. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers, who sponsored the House bill, said they suspected left-leaning professors may be intolerant of conservative students. Roach said last year that college students he declined to identify told him they were penalized academically for disagreeing with a professor.

“A lot of conservative or right-leaning students definitely feel like they have to be silent in a lot of their classes because their grades will suffer, or they'll be put down by fellow students,” said Andrew Davis, 22, a business administration master’s student at the University of South Florida and member of the College Republicans there. “I think it's a real concern. It's an important goal that the administration is going after.”

Roach said responses to the initial surveys showed encouraging data and no cause for alarm. He said future surveys should be distributed in more ways to encourage participation, and some questions should be reworded to make them more concise.

The lack of student participation in the first year’s round of surveys was blamed partly on bad timing: The surveys were sent during the end of the semester when many harried students were studying for final exams. At Florida A&M University, for example, only 53 students out of 8,393 filled out the surveys. At Florida International University, only 413 out of 49,477 completed them.

The surveys asked questions such as whether students agreed or disagreed with the statement, “My professors or course instructors use class time to express their own social or political beliefs without objectively discussing opposing social or political beliefs.” 

A lengthier, 24-question version for faculty and staff asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the statements, “I have felt intimidated to share my ideas or political opinions because they were different from those of my colleagues,” and “My institution is equally tolerant and welcoming of both liberal and conservative ideas and beliefs.”

It also asked professors, “Where would you place yourself on the following scale: conservative, moderate, liberal, none of the above.” It did not ask that question to students but asked them whether they perceived their professors were conservative or liberal. 

The surveys were intended to show higher education administrators whether their campuses were embracing intellectual diversity, said Roach, the lawmaker who sponsored the idea. Lawmakers in Tallahassee taking action to intervene would be a last resort, he said.

The United Faculty of Florida, the union representing professors at public universities, encouraged faculty members to ignore this year’s survey. The union complained about what it described as leading questions and lack of security. It said there was no outside third party guaranteeing information would remain private and anonymous.

Richard Conley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, said he did not participate in the survey as a conservative because he feared political retribution documenting his viewpoint in what he described as a primarily liberal department.

“I wouldn’t fill out that survey because it’s probably a career killer,” he said. “You don’t know where any of this information goes.”

A group of professors, including David Price of Santa Fe College, have sued in federal court the state’s Board of Education and Board of Governors – which oversee colleges and universities – to shut down the surveys. In an interview, Price said the Legislature has “totally gone off the rails” with burdens it is imposing on higher education in Florida.

Their lawsuit said the law was “enacted as a clear message that those that proliferate views with which the governor disagrees will find their funding in jeopardy.” 

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee denied a request in March to block the first round of surveys, saying the professors failed to show “an immediate and irreparable injury.” The judge said he could, in the future, force Florida to stop the surveys and destroy any responses it already collected.

Lawyers preparing the case told the judge earlier this month they have already questioned under oath at least eight state lawmakers, and the governor’s deputy chief of staff and two other senior advisors in his office. 

Roach, the author of the bill, said he was improperly served a subpoena in the case and will not testify. Sens. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, also refused to testify, citing a legislative privilege. Cruz opposed the bill; Rodrigues co-sponsored it. 

Rodrigues – who also cosponsored the Senate bill requiring tenure reviews – was appointed last month to be the chancellor of the State University System overseeing all public universities in Florida. He declined through an aide to discuss his views on higher education policy.

Lawyers for the state government have asked a judge to block any effort to depose Richard Corcoran, the former House speaker and former education commissioner who now is on the board of the State University System. The case is expected to go to trial in January. 

The professors’ union said it was happy that so few people filled out the surveys.

“The low number of participation shows that this narrative that Gov. DeSantis and his supporters are pushing — indoctrination in higher education — is entirely fabricated,” said Andrew Gothard, the group’s president. “If students and the community were actually genuinely concerned that this was happening, no amount of encouragement to boycott from us would have stopped them.”

It was impossible for the survey not to become politicized, said Samuel Staley, a Florida State University professor and director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center for public policy research.

“Once it was thrown in as a part of statute, and then the Board of Governors was tasked with implementing and designing it, it was immediately a political football,” he said.

Staley, a libertarian who advises students in the conservative group Turning Point USA on campus, filled out the survey because he believed it was a sincere attempt to address student self-censorship in Florida’s universities. After reviewing the questions, he predicted nothing legitimate would come from the project. He was one of 1,125 out of 14,633 FSU employees who participated.

Response rates among students were so low “the results are almost useless,” Staley said.


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at carissa.allen@freshtakeflorida.com . You can donate to support our students here .

Carissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.