Florida mandates political viewpoint survey in universities

Students and faculty to be asked annually about their personal opinions, with public funding tied to answers

June 25, 2021
University of Florida
Source: iStock

The state of Florida has enacted a series of laws to impose a politically conservative stamp on higher education, including a requirement for annual surveys of students and faculty to assess their personal viewpoints.

The Republican governor of the state, Ron DeSantis – regarded as a leading US presidential candidate for 2024 – said upon signing the bills into law that institutions could face budget cuts if they were found to have promoted the “indoctrination” of students.

Public universities and colleges should not be “hotbeds for stale ideology”, Mr DeSantis said.

He was joined by the leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature, Senate president Wilton Simpson and House speaker Chris Sprowls, in faulting Florida’s public universities for lacking a diversity of opinions.

The survey bill requires Florida’s two public university systems to use “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” surveys each year to measure “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives” are presented on their campuses.

The measure is part of a series of crackdowns by conservatives on intellectual diversity in higher education across the US, including an Indiana law last month that sets out a similar type of survey for its public universities.

Conservatives at the federal level and in various states also have been fighting to block the teaching of critical race theory, which explains the discriminatory effects of long-standing laws and policies. More broadly, the US has seen a rash of conservative-led moves in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral defeat to block voting rights and political expression.

The new Florida law, beyond mandating the annual ideology surveys, would make clear that students can secretly record classroom lectures for use in legal cases they may choose to file against their university.

The law also would bar the state’s public institutions from “shielding”students, faculty and staff from speech that they “may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive”.

The University of Florida pledged fidelity to the directive. In a statement, the university said it believes that the surveys will prove the institution to be a “marketplace of ideas where a wide variety of opinions are expressed and independent inquiry and vigorous academic deliberation are valued”.

Two other laws approved by the Florida legislature and signed by Mr DeSantis require a set of civic literacy courses and assessments at both school and postsecondary levels.

Such state-mandated curricula would include “portraits in patriotism” that celebrate the US governing model compared with those of other countries, and teach that communism is “evil”.

Florida’s plans – especially the mandatory thought survey – have attracted widespread concern among university faculty, Democratic lawmakers and experts on free speech rights.

The American Association of University Professors said that while the Florida survey was presented as a bid to ensure diversity of thought, it offered no protections against misuse of the results.

“The potential dangers posed by such a survey to personal privacy and to freedom of association and belief are obvious,” said the AAUP, the main nationwide association of US college faculty.

Another group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an independent watchdog of free speech rights on college campuses, said it was particularly troubled by the provision encouraging secret classroom recordings.

The law appeared misguided, given the need to carefully balance “the laudable goal of transparency and the need to avoid creating conditions that threaten academic freedom and chill speech”, Joe Cohn, Fire’s legislative and policy director, wrote in an analysis.


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