FL’s new college survey on political leanings may have flaws that could invalidate results

By: - April 6, 2022 7:00 am

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

Two days after thousands of Florida college students and faculty members received surveys on political and ideological leanings on their campuses, concerns have arisen about possible design flaws and validity problems.

The Phoenix has found that links related to the surveys have been sent to people who are not supposed to be taking it. What will that mean for the results of the survey?

On Tuesday, the United Faculty of Florida, a university faculty union, said in a written statement:

“Since the survey’s release, UFF has received multiple reports of students and employees sending the survey to friends and of individuals filling it out multiple times, since the survey’s distributions methods provide few if any safeguards against these actions,” the union said.

UFF claims that the survey “contains major problems of security and validity.”

The survey, called the “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity” survey, is a part of a larger political context that sprouted from a law passed during the 2021 legislative session, HB 233.  Some lawmakers see colleges and universities as liberal bastions and believe conservative voices have been suppressed on campuses.

The potential for anyone to submit multiple responses, whether or not affiliated with a Florida college or university, spells doubts about how the state might use the survey responses.

A legitimate concern

In a Monday report about the surveys, the Phoenix noted that students or faculty members could send the link to people not associated with community colleges or universities across Florida, and that theycould fill out the surveys.

Thomas Kennedy, a progressive activist and known critic of the DeSantis administration, tweeted a picture of an email that a Florida Atlantic University student received, requesting participation in the survey. The image included a URL to the survey.

Another Twitter user replied to Kennedy’s tweet: “Be a real shame if a bunch of people went to that link and input their views …”

The commenter highlighted a potential security concern that could lead to a surge of survey submissions from just about anybody, so long as they have a link.

The survey is also supposed to be anonymous, so it’s not clear how Florida’s Board of Governors or the Department of Education will determine whether the surveys are completed by faculty, students, or other people entirely.

Bob Holladay

Bob Holladay, an adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, took issue with the potential that third parties might influence the results.

“They need to make sure that a bunch of trolls don’t get on there and load the [survey]. And that’s a legitimate concern right there,” Holladay told the Phoenix.

Two survey opportunities?

Haley Keane, a graduate student teaching beginning English courses at Florida Atlantic University, received two opportunities to respond to the survey — one for students and one for faculty, she told the Phoenix.

The surveys for staff and the surveys for students are different. You can read more about those differences here.

One of the main differences is that the surveys ask faculty and staff to identify their political leanings, between  “conservative,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or “none of the above.”

The survey asks university and college students to report whether their professors are more “conservative,” “liberal,” “other,” or “don’t know.”

Keane opted to fill out the student survey, but was “conflicted” doing so because she believed the questions were leading.

“The questions assume a lot about what students ‘know’ about their instructors’ political leanings based on class discussions. There is really no way for the student side of this to accurately portray the political leanings of faculty,” Keane said over email to the Phoenix.

Keane said she would have submitted a blank survey had the student version asked for her political leanings.

The survey is poorly worded and “is unlikely to be helpful towards creating any academic and political diversity in the university system,” she said. “The survey and its leading questions seem to have much more of an agenda than just gathering data.”

“I’m concerned about what will be done with the results of this survey. What will the state constitute as ‘not enough’ political diversity? What will happen to instructors who discuss politics in the classroom, which is key for teaching students to be more engaged citizens?” she said.

Florida State University campus. Credit: Diane Rado.

Another factor that could muddy the results are people who refuse to reply. That’s the case for Lizzy McCawley, who works at Florida State University and formerly attended the institution.

She told the Phoenix she was following guidance from the United Faculty of Florida, which urged students, staff, and faculty to “ignore the unconstitutional survey.” UFF is challenging the survey in federal court.

“They [state officials] clearly don’t respect or value the diverse lifestyles and beliefs of the state based on their other legislation right now (abortion restriction, Don’t Say Gay, etc),” McCawley told the Phoenix over text. “Based on their actions, the survey feels like a threat, or another way to learn about citizens’ private business and use it against them.”

Holladay, the TCC professor, took the survey and told the Phoenix that he doesn’t see it as a “big threat” but that “we do need to watch” the results and how the state uses them.

“If it’s not used to punish people, if it’s not used to fire teachers, if it’s not used to intimidate teachers, I really don’t see anything wrong with it. I do think we need intellectual diversity,” he said.

Who wrote the survey?

The law prompts the Florida Department of Education, overseeing the state’s college system, and the Board of Governors, overseeing the state’s universities, to direct each institution to conduct the surveys.

Both of these agencies were to “select or create an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey.”

The Phoenix made several attempts to find out who wrote the final version of the surveys and how. Neither agency responded.

Marshall M. Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida. Credit: system website.

In September, Marshall Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, told state lawmakers that the Institute of Politics at Florida State University was involved in creating the survey, but it’s not clear to what extent.

The Phoenix reached out to the Institute of Politics and was told to direct questions to the communications department at FSU, which told the Phoenix to reach out to the Board of Governors, which did not respond.

The institute was established during the 2020 legislative session to “provide the southeastern region of the United States with a world class, bipartisan, nationally renowned institute of politics,” according to the legislation at the time.

The institute is in the process of announcing an “advisory board.” So far, there are two Republican-leaning members of the board.

According to the institute’s website, Al Cardenas will serve as chair. He has had a long history with the Republican Party, previously serving as chair and vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush appointed Cardenas to associations or commissions.

The other member is former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who served in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was elected as a U.S. senator for Florida in 2004, according to his bio on the institute’s website.

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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.