New college survey for “intellectual freedom” has already spawned a lawsuit

By: - September 24, 2021 5:34 pm

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

Months ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a controversial law that would require Florida’s colleges and universities to conduct a survey intended to gauge whether institutions of higher education promote “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.”

At the time, critics questioned what those surveys will ask, how intellectual diversity will be measured, and what will happen with the results.

Three months later, very few of those concerns have been answered or addressed and there’s also a lawsuit.

In August, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF)  joined a federal lawsuit against state education officials, arguing that aspects of the law threaten the right to free speech. The federal lawsuit was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by faculty members and students of Florida’s college and university systems.

“Any law that relies on the good will of legislators and politicians over the protections of the Constitution is not a good law,” said Andrew Gothard, the UFF president. “And that is why we are challenging HB 233 (now the law) in court and that is why we do not believe that these viewpoint diversity surveys have any place in higher education in this state.”

Earlier this week, Marshall Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, updated lawmakers about the survey during a committee meeting leading up to the 2022 legislative session. However, Criser didn’t provide many concrete details.

He did say that the survey will need to be designed, and it would be conducted in the spring of 2022. Results would be assessed over the summer to meet a deadline to publish the survey’s findings by Sept. 1, 2022, as outlined in the law.

Criser said that the Institute of Politics at Florida State University is involved in the creation of the survey, but it’s not yet clear to what extent.

The Phoenix reached out to the Board of Governors for more information about the institute’s involvement, and is awaiting a response. The Phoenix also reached out to the Institute of Politics itself, and was told to speak to the Board of Governors.

“What I would describe is we are working with the political institute (Institute of Politics) at Florida State University. And when I say ‘working with’ – I have individuals on my staff who are very good at data and data analysis. They have people who are incredibly talented and do survey work,” Criser told lawmakers.

The Institute of Politics was created by the Florida legislature in 2020, with certain goals such as becoming “a national and state resource on polling information and survey methodology.”

Criser continued: “And so, we are trying to understand what the right questions are and what the right approach is and also getting some professional — I’d say they have some professional guidance to us about size and number of questions and the way you ask questions.”

Rep. James Mooney, a Republican who represents Monroe and part of Miami-Dade County, asked Criser to specify the Board of Governor’s decision on whether the Board of Governors will create the survey or contract another entity to create it.

“I’d think I’d say, generally, we are not contracting out, but we are working closely with them (Institute of Politics) to help develop this,” Criser said.

Meanwhile, UFF President Gothard told the Phoenix on Friday that, “So far, very little has been said about how these, what they call ‘viewpoint diversity surveys,’ are going to be constructed.”

“Sure, this survey could be innocuous if it’s designed in the right way,” Gothard said, “but there is no guarantee it will be innocuous.”

He continued: “Unfortunately, we cannot imagine a scenario where the survey will go well. At its baseline it might be ‘acceptable,’ but there’s really no reality where this survey could do anything useful or productive for the Florida higher education system…The real problem with… the survey is that there are virtually no limitations on the kinds of questions this survey can ask, and then what can be done with the results of that survey afterword.”

The law says that the survey must be objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid. The law does not require the survey to be anonymous.

It also must consider “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

The new law also allows students to film lectures without permission of the professors, and forbids institutions from “shielding” students from opinions and ideas that they may find  “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.