Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to sign HB 233. The bill requires the State Board of Education and each of Florida’s colleges and universities to conduct an annual assessment “related to intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.”
The Board of Education must “select or create an objective, non-partisan and statistically valid survey” to measure the extent to which “competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether students, faculty and staff “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”
The first survey shall be published on Sept. 1, 2022.
This all sounds benign, even protective of the free exchange of ideas on campus — or is it a predicate to an assault on higher education?
Does the legislation address a genuine problem? Or does it vent a judgment by some far-right conservatives that college liberal arts courses are all “woke political correctness”?
The claim that a liberal arts education is valueless and unconnected to post-graduate education and a career is obviously absurd; that it is just “woke political correctness” is insulting to the nation’s professors. (Full disclosure: For almost nine years, I taught philosophy to undergraduates at two Midwestern universities.)
Apparently, some conservatives have concluded that America’s universities are dominated by professors whose political leanings are liberal and, therefore, provide an intellectually biased education.
Are colleges and universities really able to block “competing ideas and perspectives” on campus? There is, after all, the First Amendment. Recall that just a few years ago, fearing a lawsuit accusing the University of Florida of violating the First Amendment’s constitutional protections, university lawyers convinced the president that he had to reverse an initial decision denying alt-right firebrand Richard Spencer, leader of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, the right to speak on campus.
This will not be the first piece of legislation adopted by the Legislature that is based on an unexamined anecdote that someone heard about. Funny how an unexamined anecdote is regarded as impermissible hearsay in courts that operate by rules of evidence for determining violations of law, but is standard fare in Florida’s Legislature for adopting those laws.
The Legislature has dumped this in the lap of the Board of Education and Florida’s colleges and universities. They will have to spend time figuring out how to implement what seems to be a solution in search of a problem.
But let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that there’s something to the stereotype that college students and university faculty are more liberal than conservative in their values and political viewpoint. If the mandatory survey assessing viewpoint diversity confirms this, how will the information state government collects be used going forward? And let’s not be naïve: Information collected by government is information that will be used by government.
Will the assessment of “viewpoint diversity” involve an assessment of each member of the faculty? Will they be asked to characterize or divulge their personal political orientation? What if they refuse? Will students or the administration provide the characterization of the faculty member’s political leanings? Does anything seem more un-American? To paraphrase Casey Stengel about his pitiful 1962 New York Mets, “Don’t anyone around here remember the McCarthy years of the 1950s?”
Could the survey be the basis for future hiring decisions? The chemistry department has seven conservatives and four liberals, so in order to achieve more “viewpoint diversity” on campus the next few hires should be liberals? Is that where this is going? Who knows — the legislation contains no prohibitions on how the information will be used.
There is so much potential mischief and so little protection for academic freedom in this legislation, it certainly will not be long before state government and university communities regret yet another legislative mistake.
Howard L. Simon served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997 until 2018.