State university faculty, students to be surveyed on beliefs

Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested that budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be “indoctrinating” students.
Police create a barrier between a group of protesters and Kaitlin Bennett, a gun rights advocate who hosts the Liberty Hangout show during her visit to the University of South Florida campus on Oct. 7, 2020, in Tampa.
Police create a barrier between a group of protesters and Kaitlin Bennett, a gun rights advocate who hosts the Liberty Hangout show during her visit to the University of South Florida campus on Oct. 7, 2020, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 22, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — In his continued push against the “indoctrination” of students, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed legislation that will require public universities and colleges to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints to support “intellectual diversity.”

The survey will discern “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” in public universities and colleges, and seeks to find whether students, faculty and staff “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill.

The measure, which goes into effect July 1, does not specify what will be done with the survey results. But DeSantis and Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the sponsor of the bill, suggested on Tuesday that budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be “indoctrinating” students.

Related: Florida GOP pushes intellectual diversity survey for colleges

“That’s not worth tax dollars and that’s not something that we’re going to be supporting moving forward,” DeSantis said at a press conference at a middle school in Fort Myers.

University faculty members have worried the new measure could create a chilling effect on their freedom of speech. Democratic lawmakers also have argued the bill might allow politicians to meddle in, monitor and regulate speech on campus in the future.

DeSantis, however, said the intent of the measure is to prevent public universities and colleges from becoming “hotbeds for stale ideology.”

“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” DeSantis said. “Unfortunately, now the norm is, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”

No details offered

The governor did not name specific state universities or colleges with this problem. He was broad in his accusations about the higher education system and used vague anecdotes to justify the need for such a survey.

For instance, the governor said he “knows a lot of parents” who are worried that their children will be “indoctrinated” when they go off to college, and that universities are promoting “orthodoxies.” But he did not offer specifics on those claims.

Officials at some of the state’s major universities, including Florida State University and Florida International University, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the governor’s claims.

The University of Florida issued a statement that upheld the Gainesville-based school as a “marketplace of ideas where a wide variety of opinions are expressed and independent inquiry and vigorous academic deliberation are valued.”

“We believe the survey will reflect that, and we look forward to widespread participation across campus,” the statement said.

Related: Is 'cancel culture' real on Florida college campuses?

But in what appeared to be a coordinated effort, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, slammed universities for lacking a “diversity of thought.”

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Simpson, speaking at a state university system’s Board of Governors meeting on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, said there appear to be “socialism factories” in the state’s public university system.

“We always hear about the liberal parts of the university system, and we don’t hear so much of that from the college system,” Simpson said.

Sprowls echoed some of that sentiment at the governor’s press conference.

“As the governor said, we are at great risk, as a nation and as a state, on the lack of intellectual diversity that is on our university campuses,” Sprowls said. “We have decided that one ideological standard will win the day, but the thing is we’re losing because we’re not having real conversations.”

Debate during the legislative session

In House and Senate committee discussions before the bill was passed, Democratic lawmakers were concerned Republican leaders would use the survey’s results against higher education institutions.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, asked Rodrigues, R-Estero, if the information could be “used to punish or reward colleges or universities?” She wondered: “Might faculty be promoted or fired because of their political beliefs?”

Rodrigues said no. But the language in the bill, and the statements made Tuesday, do not back that assertion. The bill also offers no assurances that the survey’s answers will be anonymous, and there is no clarity on who can use the data and for what purpose.

What is specified is that the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education will be required to select or create an “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey,” presumably through the boards’ public procurement or rule-making process.

In addition to the survey, the measure DeSantis signed into law will bar university and college officials from limiting speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive,” and will allow students to record lectures without consent for educational purposes or to support a civil or criminal case against a higher education institution.

When debating the bill on the Senate floor, Rodrigues said students should be able to “shed a light” on wrongdoing in a classroom. Professors, however, would have civil cause of action against any student — whether they are an adult or a minor — if they publish the recording for any other purpose.

DeSantis did not go into all the details of the bill, but lauded it in broad terms, saying it will allow “robust First Amendment speech on our college and university campuses.”

“I think that having intellectual diversity is something that is very, very important,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis’ push to promote “intellectual diversity” and competing ideas on college campuses comes two weeks after he championed a ban on specific lessons and discussions in K-12 public schools related to racism’s reach in American society.

At DeSantis’ request, the State Board of Education voted to bar lessons and discussions on the concept of critical race theory and “The 1619 Project.”

Related: Florida education board votes to keep critical race theory out of schools

None of Florida’s school districts taught the theory before the ban, state education officials acknowledged. But DeSantis, leading up to his reelection bid in 2022, has railed against critical race theory, a legal academic concept that examines systemic racism in American institutions and policies, because he says it is an attempt to indoctrinate children against the United States.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Divya Kumar contributed to this report.