GAINESVILLE, Fla. – After only one year, Florida has temporarily suspended a highly controversial, statewide survey required under a new state law compelling public colleges and universities annually to ask students and faculty to identify political bias in college classrooms.
The executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System, Clifford Humphrey, confirmed that the mandatory “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” surveys were being suspended for 2023 and will be distributed again in the spring.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers ordered annual surveys of nearly 2 million students, faculty and staff across 12 universities and 28 colleges statewide as part of a new law in 2021, amid concerns about what they worried was anti-conservative sentiment on college and university campuses.
The law that DeSantis signed in 2021 ordered the Board of Governors, which oversees universities, and the Board of Education, which oversees colleges, “to annually assess intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at certain institutions,” and said results must be published by Sept. 1 of each year, starting last year.
Asked the reason for suspending the surveys this year, the Florida College System noted a law passed last year that pushed back the annual deadline for reporting results of the surveys from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, starting next year. But the newer law didn’t explicitly allow agencies to skip a year and the new deadlines don’t take effect until next year.
The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said through an aide he was not aware the 2023 survey had been suspended. Roach’s aide said administering the surveys later in the year starting in 2024 would give students more time to form an opinion about their experiences and increase the value of the surveys.
In the inaugural round of surveys, 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.
The Republican-backed law in 2021 requiring the annual political surveys in college classrooms was one of the early steps to prevent what DeSantis has described as efforts to “indoctrinate” students at public universities. Since then, the Legislature has passed laws restricting certain topics from being taught in general education courses, outlawed spending money on most campus diversity programs and set up new reviews for professors whose tenure otherwise would protect them from political interference or retribution.
The president of the labor union representing professors at colleges and universities, J. Andrew Gothard of the United Faculty of Florida, said he wasn’t surprised to hear the survey had been suspended. He said that was further evidence that higher education officials in Florida think the survey was inappropriate in its current form.
The survey was intended to intimidate staff and faculty from holding or communicating political opinions that may be at odds with DeSantis, said Gothard, who is on leave from Florida Atlantic University to run the professors’ union. “That’s North Korea, not north Florida,” he said.
The union openly discouraged professors from filling out the first year’s surveys. There is no legal requirement for students or state employees to participate. The surveys, to be completed online, did not ask participants to identify themselves.
Owen Girard, a student at Florida State and president of the conservative group Turning Point USA’s chapter there, said the surveys were an effort to normalize political conversations at universities. He said most college campuses are liberal-leaning, which can cause conservative students like him to shy away from sharing their beliefs.
Girard said he faced obstacles at Tallahassee Community College and described the environment at Florida State as better at allowing him to express his conservative views – but said there is still room to improve.
Results from the first year’s surveys did not go as expected for conservatives.
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.
The lack of student participation in the first year’s round of surveys was blamed partly on bad timing: Those 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 first survey under the law asked students whether they felt their university campus and classes provide an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions or beliefs. It also asked whether their instructors used class time to speak about their political beliefs non-objectively and if they felt comfortable giving their views on controversial and non-controversial topics. Other questions asked students whether they believed their college or instructors were generally more liberal or conservative.
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.
Faculty across the state sued in federal court to challenge the survey on constitutional grounds, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit for a lack of legal standing. The judge ruled that while professors had legitimate concerns, there was not enough evidence to support their argument that the law would have a chilling effect or subjective fear of punishment if students or faculty held beliefs unpopular with the governor.
The lead plaintiff in that case, Professor Emeritus William A. Link at the University of Florida, said he retired in August 2022 amid a series of laws that he said politicized higher education. He said he felt obligated to challenge the surveys in the courtroom.
“I felt a sort of obligation to do so, considering how insidious it would have on the morale and the well-being of the university,” he said. “It’s a nefarious attempt on one of the core principles of modern higher education. You keep the politicians out.”
Link said his younger colleagues don’t have the freedom to retire as he did.
“I’m old enough to be able to get out of it,” he said, “but many of my colleagues that don’t have a choice to do another job must remain in this kind of oppressive environment – demoralizing environment.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.