BY LEN CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida released its first ever “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity” survey as required by House Bill 233. Unfortunately, the survey itself fails to satisfy statutory requirements for “an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey.” The results are not very useful because the samples are not statistically representative and the response rates were pathetically low.
HB 233 was signed into law in 2021 and created a new statute (1001.73(13)) that requires each state university “to conduct an annual assessment of the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at that institution.” According to the new statute, the survey is supposed to assess “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and how students, faculty, and staff “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus.”
The Board of Governors chose to use the web-based SurveyMonkey platform to create two surveys, one for students and one for employees. They then created institution-specific URLs that were distributed by email to all students and staff (with the exception of Florida Polytechnic, which used its Learning Management System to distribute the link to students).
Because the surveys were anonymous, with the same URL for all respondents in each group, there is no quality control to ensure the results came from actual students or staff or even from people at the state universities. This is probably because any attempt to control survey access would make respondents question the anonymous nature of the survey, but it is still a weakness. Making the survey voluntary also ensured selection bias and low response rates, which also detract from any conclusions that might be drawn from the results. The tables below show the response rates for students and staff by university.
Arguably, the results are meaningless and not at all statistically representative of the students or employees overall or at any particular university. The full list of questions and all the results can be found in the report.
Most questions used a 5-option scale: strongly agree, agree, neither agree or disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree. For simplicity and clarity, I’m combining these into three categories that should be self-explanatory.
In general, students agreed that their campus and classes provide “an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs,” with UF having a slightly smaller proportion of students who agreed with those statements and more students who disagreed.
The most interesting student questions were numbers 5 and 6, which asked whether instructors use class time to push their own political beliefs. While only about a quarter of students agreed with that statement, almost as many remained neutral or refused to answer, possibly suggesting that they didn’t really think the survey was anonymous. Of those who agreed (709 of 2,722 at UF and 1,514 of 6,113 from other universities), the vast majority said the activist professors were liberal.
This result seems to contradict the employee survey question number 12, which asked whether instructors inject their own political ideas into their classes. The graph is based on 853 professors and instructors at UF and 1,967 from other universities.
Students’ overall perception of faculty is not as bleak as question 6 suggests. Considering all faculty (not just the activist faculty addressed in question 6), students were just as likely to not know their instructor’s political affiliation as they were to suspect them to be liberals.
Sadly, question 24, which asked employees about their own political leanings, did not separate out professors and instructors to compare that result to the students’ perceptions of their teachers. Students were not asked about their political leanings, which is an oversight because their own political beliefs could influence their perceptions about their school and teachers.
Next to teachers pushing their political beliefs, the next most important question for students was probably number 12, which asked if they felt intimidated to share their ideas or opinions. One-third of UF students agreed that they felt intimidated, which was considerably higher than the students at other state universities.
The survey had 21 questions for students and 24 questions for employees. Most seem almost irrelevant because they do not control for degree program or specific classes. You would not expect “examples of free and welcomed expression (such as speeches, debates with other students or instructors, class assignments, etc.)” to be commonly found in mathematics, hard sciences, or engineering classes.
As with a lot of legislation, the push to evaluate “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity” may have been well-intentioned, but it was poorly executed, both by the legislature and the Board of Governors. Even if there is a problem with political biases being pushed on college campuses, having an assessment pushed by politicians only further increases the political tension, and the letter from the state faculty union that encouraged everyone to ignore the survey is just one example of that.
If the Board of Governors intends to take this annual requirement seriously, they need to hire an actual polling firm to randomly sample and personally contact students and staff, who are then compensated for their time in some way and assured of their anonymity by the firm that is not associated with the school or the Board of Governors.