Gov. DeSantis and the need for viewpoint diversity in higher education | Column
Not surprisingly, DeSantis’ critics are throwing fits about surveying political views on Florida’s university campuses, writes guest columnist Scott Gerber.
Ron DeSantis at a February 2021 press conference in Orlando, Fla..
Ron DeSantis at a February 2021 press conference in Orlando, Fla.. [ JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Jul. 1, 2021|Updated Jul. 1, 2021

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill to protect against indoctrination in the state’s colleges and universities. The new law, which went into effect on July 1, requires Florida’s public colleges and universities to conduct an annual survey measuring “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on their campuses. The law’s goal is to assess “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and how free students, faculty, and staff feel “to express their beliefs and viewpoints.”

Prof. Scott Gerber
Prof. Scott Gerber [ Prof. Scott Gerber ]

The Florida law does not specify what will be done with the survey results, but Gov. DeSantis suggested that budget cuts could result if universities and colleges are found to be “indoctrinating” students. “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 really these are more intellectually repressive environments.”

DeSantis is currently a frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Indeed, he edged former President Donald Trump in a recent straw poll taken at the Western Conservative Summit. The problem DeSantis has identified is not unique to Florida — Indiana’s Republican governor signed a similar bill last month — and it traces directly to the political biases of the processes by which faculty are hired. Many of the same colleges and universities that tout tenure as a way to encourage free thought censor it by not allowing conservative and libertarian faculty candidates who think freely to get in the door.

I once suggested on the ConLawProf group email list that law schools need to hire more conservative and libertarian candidates (with “more” meaning, at a minimum, at least one). The reaction? One law professor posted that I was “nuts” to suggest such a thing. Libertarian law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz quipped at a Federalist Society conference on intellectual diversity in the legal academy that his leftist colleagues at Georgetown felt that three conservatives on a law faculty of 120 was “plenty — and perhaps even one or two too many.”

Anecdotes aside, Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren has published detailed statistical surveys that document that Republicans and Christians are the groups most under-represented in the law professoriate. If the small handful of right-leaning and Christian law schools is excluded from the dataset, the problem is actually worse. Additional studies demonstrate that lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty extends campus-wide. For example, according to research conducted last year by the National Association of Scholars, Democratic professors outnumber their Republican colleagues by a ratio of 8.5 to 1 on top college campuses.

“Research since World War II has consistently found overwhelmingly left-oriented political attitudes and ideological self-identification among college and university faculty” the report notes. The report also found that the most drastic differences in the ratio were among professors of English, at 26.8 to 1, sociology, at 27 to 1, and anthropology, 42.2 to 1. Less “subjective” majors such as mathematics (5.5 to 1), chemistry (4.6 to 1), and economics (3 to 1) were less politically biased.

Not surprisingly, DeSantis’ critics are throwing fits. Nikki Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner who is challenging DeSantis for governor next year, compared the governor’s actions to “what authoritarian regimes do.” Charles P. Pierce wrote in Esquire that DeSantis is a “wingnut” who is as “full of crap as the Christmas goose.” Steven Benen toned it down a bit for MSNBC by merely opining that the new law is “absurd.”

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What DeSantis’ critics fail to appreciate is that truth is most likely to emerge from the clash of ideas. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously referred to it as the “marketplace of ideas,” while John Stuart Mill expressed this same view in his classic book “On Liberty.” The “peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race,” Mill wrote. “Posterity as well as the existing generation — those who dissent from the opinion, still more those who hold it.”

Gov. DeSantis received his undergraduate degree from Yale and his law degree from Harvard. He should be commended for recognizing that faculty need to start behaving like professors again.

Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University and an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project.