Who influenced divisive FL college survey on political leanings? Many questions still unanswered

By: - April 8, 2022 4:19 pm

Florida State University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last summer, the state university system made a deal with Florida State University for up to $75,000 to develop an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid college survey — a project pursued by GOP lawmakers who felt the state’s campuses were too liberal leaning.

Since then, not much is known about the survey that would go out to more than 1 million students,  faculty and staff across Florida’s public universities and community colleges.

In just the first week, the survey labeled as “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity” created concerns about possible design flaws and validity problems.

The Florida Phoenix has asked numerous questions about the survey, but for the most part, higher education officials have been mum on the issues.

Statewide university officials and FSU, in Tallahassee, have not specified who wrote the questions, who approved those questions, who will analyze the findings, who will evaluate the results and who may have been a third-party contributor helping create the questions.

Also unclear is the role of the Institute of Politics at FSU. Florida law established the institute in 2020, according to legislative and state budget documents. According to a Florida State news article, the Legislature provided $1 million in initial funding for the institute.

But a year later or so, the institute may or may not have more funds, including donations, and may or may not have expanded the survey project with amendments or addendums of some kind.

Hans Hassell,  director of the Institute of Politics at FSU, told the Phoenix:

“University Communications is handling all communications on this. I would recommend reaching out to them. They can provide information about the IOP’s involvement (or lack thereof).”

The Phoenix has now requested a formal pubic records request under Florida law, asking higher education officials for more information about the survey and the institute.

Larger political context

Florida’s college survey is 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.

Nationwide, in a January report on student perception of free speech on college campuses, the Knight Foundation found that more Republicans feel that freedom of speech is at risk on college and university campuses.

“Republican students are increasingly likely to feel that freedom of speech is under threat—just over a quarter believe it is secure today, down from two thirds in 2016. More now also believe that their school’s climate stifles free expression,” the report says.

In Wisconsin, an interim chancellor has resigned and a University of Wisconsin System survey has been delayed over the highly-politicized topic of free speech on campuses, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Wisconsin Examiner, an affiliate of the States Newsroom, which includes the Phoenix, describes the survey as “The Student Perceptions of Campus Free Speech Survey.”

The survey was set to be conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, according to the Examiner. It is funded by the Menard Center for Public Policy and Service and started by a donation from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and bears the name of John Menard, a prominent Republican donor.

As to Florida issues, the Phoenix found that links related to the college surveys have been sent to people who are not supposed to be taking it, and a statewide faculty union has challenged the survey in federal court, claiming that the survey “contains major problems of security and validity.”

The survey asks faculty to divulge their political leanings or ask students to determine the political leanings of their professors, among other areas of concern.

The ACLU of Florida said in a written comment that the survey raises “significant concerns with regard to how the information will be used, who will have access to the information, and whether individuals will be targeted with negative consequences based on their viewpoints or based on their decision to opt-out of providing such information due to fear of potential negative consequences.”

The civil rights organization added:

“Additionally, because only certain individuals may feel comfortable voluntarily disclosing such information on the survey, any information gleaned from the survey will not be indicative of the viewpoints of faculty, staff, and students as a whole and thus will be of minimal, if any, meaningful value.”

A few things are known

The official agreement between FSU and the state university system’s Board of Governors was signed mid-June of 2021, according to Florida’s tracking system for contracts and other financial agreements.

It confirmed that the Board of Governors promised FSU $75,000 for “research services” regarding the Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity survey. Those “research services” were from June 4, 2021 to September 3, 2021, “unless extended by written amendment or terminated sooner.”

Payments were made out to FSU’s Sponsored Research Administration.

The Board of Governors asked FSU to develop a survey “to be used by each state university.”

“The survey will consider the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the university community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” the document says.

The “scope of services” requests FSU to “develop survey that achieves the objective and provide recommendations on methodologies for administering, collecting and analyzing the survey. FSU was also to deliver monthly reports to the BOG and “deliver three separate surveys and a final report detailing sources, methods, findings, and conclusions” in an electronic document.

It’s not clear about the Florida Department of Education’s role in handling the survey for Florida’s community colleges.

The state records show that early documents called for three surveys — one for faculty, one for staff and one for students.

In the surveys that launched this week , there appears to be only two survey versions — one for students and one for “employees.” Faculty and staff appear to have the same survey. The survey requests that non-instructional employees skip the questions regarding classroom instruction intended for faculty and other instructors.

The Institute of Politics at FSU provided a project proposal to the Board of Governors, according to the state documents in 2021.

The institute recommended the use of online survey platforms such as SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics.

The institute’s project proposal seems a bit different from the final surveys released this week. For example, the proposal says:

“The survey will center upon assessing respondents’ comfort levels and willingness to share views in a range of settings, such as in a university classroom, at a university event, within non-university social settings, online, and so on.

“This design allows for insight into any areas where intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity are being limited. The survey will also gather demographics and political viewpoint data to determine which groups (if any) report being unable to share their views in these settings.”

The Institute of Politics recommended that the surveys launch “before mid-November 2021 or in February 2022.” But the surveys did not get released until April. The proposal says that the survey will take about a month to administer and one month for data quality assurance and quality control.

Then, analysis of the survey responses and reporting the results, would take a few weeks, saying that “timing TBA (to be announced) but initial results can be generated within 2 weeks and a final report within 6 weeks.”

State law requires that the results of the survey be compiled and published by September of 2022.

Dennis Schnittker, assistant vice president of university communications, confirmed the institute was involved in some capacity.

“As you know, the survey is being conducted by the Florida Board of Governors and the BOG is best suited to answer your question about the development of the survey. I can tell you that the institute provided expertise to the BOG on survey development best practices,” Schnittker responded in an email to the Phoenix.

At a Board of Governors meeting on March 30, Marshall Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, said, “We are working very closely with the college system — I think, if you want to use the phrase ‘arm-in-arm,’ I think we at least have that, maybe ‘hand-in-hand,’ — with the colleges, in developing, not only the survey itself, but also the process by which we will be sharing with campuses,” Criser said.

He added: “We are doing a 100 percent census of our students, our faculty, and our staff. That’s somewhere north of a million individuals.”

That said, the survey makes clear that students, faculty and staff are not required to participate, and the survey is anonymous.

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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.