Judge clears way for ‘intellectual diversity’ surveys at Florida colleges

An emergency request to stop the questionnaires is denied. They’ll be distributed Monday by email.
Students walk on the Tampa campus at the University of South Florida, one of many schools where faculty and staff will be asked to participate in an "intellectual diversity" survey mandated by the state.
Students walk on the Tampa campus at the University of South Florida, one of many schools where faculty and staff will be asked to participate in an "intellectual diversity" survey mandated by the state. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published April 1, 2022|Updated April 1, 2022

Students and employees at Florida’s public colleges and universities will be asked, starting on Monday, to complete voluntary emailed surveys about their political leanings and the political climate on their campuses after a federal judge denied an emergency request to stop the effort Friday.

Schools must conduct the surveys under the state’s “intellectual diversity” law passed last year by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued what he called a “truncated ruling” to give opponents of the surveys time to appeal.

Documents in the case provide the first detailed look at the surveys, which many faculty members fear will have a chilling effect on free speech.

Related: Five things to know about Florida’s new ‘intellectual diversity’ law

Republican lawmakers advanced the “intellectual diversity” bill, contending that too many people on college campuses feel like they need to censor themselves. The surveys were mandated as a way to empirically monitor that dynamic.

Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, responded to Walker’s ruling by calling on people to boycott the surveys. The union leader cited concerns that the surveys ask respondents to provide information that could result in faculty members being identified and targeted.

He asked university communities to “not report on their colleagues and not willfully give up information about their political views, and to protect the freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to privacy.”

In a court filing, state Board of Governors chief information officer Eugene Kovacs said no information would be used that could track who submitted responses. The board oversees the State University System.

A 24-question survey for employees and 21-question survey for students will attempt to gauge the political temperature on college campuses, asking respondents if they agree or disagree with the questions posed. The surveys will ask people to weigh in on whether their campus is open to free expression and if they’ve felt intimidated expressing their views or felt “shielded” from other ideas.

Employees will be asked if they inject their viewpoint into their teachings, and if tenure decisions at their school are based on having “a particular political viewpoint.” If they agree, they will be asked to state what political ideology — liberal, conservative or other — affects those decisions.

They also will be asked if they think their institution supports “research, publications, dissertations, etc.” and opportunities for students to engage in work that defend both liberal and conservative viewpoints and frameworks.

Though the surveys are anonymous and conducted online, employees will be asked which subject area they teach in and to identify their race, gender and political leanings.

Students will be asked to state how strongly they agree with the statement that “my professors or course instructors use class time to express their own social or political beliefs without objectively discussing opposing social or political beliefs.” They also will be asked how much they “would be concerned if most of my professors or course instructors held the same political beliefs.”

Walker’s ruling came in a case filed last July by nine professors against education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and members of the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education. One professor later dropped out and the remaining plaintiffs were joined by United Faculty of Florida and the March for Our Lives Action Fund, a nonprofit founded after the Parkland school shooting.

Sylvia Hurtado, a UCLA professor and an expert in survey design and data, wrote about her concerns in a document filed in favor of the injunction to stop the survey. Because it remains unclear how the survey results will be used, she objected.

“Foremost among my concerns is that the surveys lack a clear educational purpose or connection to learning outcomes,” she wrote.

She also wrote about concerns that the responses may be skewed because many will decide to participate, or not, based on political reasons or their feelings about the survey itself.

Isaac Kamola, a political science professor, wrote that much of the perceived free speech crisis was “manufactured” by a conservative publication called Campus Reform.

“While Campus Reform claims to be a news organization, it is run by the right-wing political organization the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists on college campuses,” he wrote. “Stories that Campus Reform publishes often fuel efforts to harass faculty, in the hopes that they will be discredited, disciplined, or even fired.”

In contrast, Kathryn Hebda, chancellor of the Florida College System, wrote in court documents that the survey would provide a “useful dataset.”

“Beyond job training, exposure to new and different ideas and viewpoints is among the most significant benefits of postsecondary education, and is crucial to ensuring the free and respectful exchange of ideas in a democratic society,” she wrote.

The Board of Governors, the State Board of Education and Corcoran, the education commissioner, argued in another pleading that no one’s health or safety was at risk by issuing the survey and so no emergency existed.

“Plaintiffs claim they are being silenced and threatened with oppression, yet all (the law) seeks is voluntary, anonymous feedback on whether higher education employees and students believe they are free to express their views or not,” they wrote.

The survey’s timing, they said, was due to spring breaks and trying to sync the state college and university systems, though Judge Walker questioned that assertion earlier in the week. He harshly criticized state officials for not providing the surveys to the plaintiffs until Tuesday, less than a week before they are to be distributed, despite having had months to develop it.

“I’ve got to tell you, this sounds like a dog’s tooth in chili to me,” Walker said Tuesday. “Something just doesn’t seem right. It sounds like there is something suspicious going on in the kitchen.”

On Friday, however, he ruled that the plaintiffs did not carry the burden to prove the four criteria necessary for a preliminary injunction, but noted he kept his ruling short to give the plaintiffs time to appeal.

The surveys will remain open online until April 8. Faculty and students will receive a reminder mid-week, and the results will be sent to the state by Sept. 1.