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OPINION: ‘Intellectual diversity’ survey will threaten classroom discourse

With the State Board of Education and Board of Governors given less than two months to create a survey assessing intellectual freedom on college campuses, they need to be careful to make it anonymous and ensure it won’t punish those who provide unfavorable responses. ORACLE FILE PHOTO

HB 233 went into effect July 1 combating alleged issues with intellectual diversity on college campuses. The law requires the State Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Governors (BOG) to create a survey for universities to assess student on-campus exposure to different perspectives. 

The law hopes to ensure universities aren’t becoming “hotbeds for stale ideologies,” according to Gov. Ron DeSantis at the law’s June 22 signing in Lee County. While most likely a political tactic designed to garner votes for the upcoming gubernatorial election, the law will nonetheless discourage free speech on college campuses and silence faculty. 

Since the BOE and BOG must author the survey by Sept. 1, they should develop one that guarantees the anonymity of the participants and disregards DeSantis’ expressed desire to add repercussions for universities that give unfavorable responses.

The legislation requires the two governing bodies to create “an objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented.”

USF political science professor J. Edwin Benton said while trying to assess universities for diverse ideas, the survey will in turn hinder open discussion on campuses where professors are already policing themselves for fear of adverse responses.

“The greatest threat to political speech on campus is not one-sidedness but a fear of misinterpretation leading to backlash,” Benton said. “I think there will be repercussions because faculty will think twice before saying something that they might have said a year ago in the classroom for fear that it will be misconstrued.” 

Benton’s prediction could mean bad news for Florida universities trying to attract out-of-state professors, according to associate professor of political science Nicholas Thompson.

“The law is bad for faculty recruitment and retention,” Thompson said. “Top tier would-be professors will consider this law when deciding whether to accept a tenure-track job at a Florida state school or continue looking elsewhere for opportunities.” 

Thompson also noted survey responses could be modified by participants if they aren’t granted anonymity, which would likely skew the results of the survey and render it useless to assess campus intellectual diversity.

“It is likely that professors will modify their survey responses to fit political authorities’ beliefs,” Thompson said. 

In an ideal university model, professors approach political thought in ways that encourage representation on all sides of an issue. This prospect is in serious danger if the survey doesn’t make participants anonymous so as to protect them from individual backlash or praise.

If we put aside the inherent danger of the survey to university communities, the law is really a purely political tactic that serves as future ammo for conservatives targeting free speech in education. 

The law has been highly publicized by DeSantis, while the legislation itself is incredibly sparse in information regarding the content of the survey and solutions to possible ideological imbalances haven’t been outlined. 

The original bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Ray Rodrigues, told fellow legislators this April he hoped the BOE and BOG would create their own solutions if the surveys were to come back tipped too far to one side of the aisle.

“If the results came back and showed that there was a lack of intellectual freedom or lack of viewpoint diversity, my hope would be that the governing body of the institution would recognize and find that unacceptable and announce what the plan is to address that,” Rodrigues said. 

The solutions should’ve already been suggested and accepted into the legislation if sponsors and the state governor felt this issue was truly prevalent throughout all public Florida universities. As Benton pointed out, however, the original bill didn’t have much statistical backing to begin with.

“If it was [motivated by concerns about lack of diverse ideology], then you would see more student complaints in the mix, but this is almost all from Tallahassee,” Benton said.

There are other grounds for suspecting the law is purely political. The law states the results will be released Sept. 1, 2022, a month before the November election for governor. 

“For DeSantis, this is an attempt to continue cultivating his national celebrity,” Thompson said. “He is building a brand as someone who will slug it out with the Republican bogeymen: the elites, the media, big tech, the teachers’ unions, the college professors, bureaucrats, [Black Lives Matter] and Antifa.” 

Recent attacks on critical race theory (CRT) are among many pieces of legislation in a large pile targeting non-issues in public education in an effort to get votes. 

It is unlikely CRT was ever taught in K-12 classrooms at all, but suspicions of unfounded accusations toward education have become all too familiar. As it stands, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa and New Hampshire have all passed legislation banning or limiting CRT, according to the Brookings Institution

One of the benefits of DeSantis passing such vague legislation is the governing bodies can interpret the law in many ways, including adding or withholding possible “solutions” to the survey’s results. In addition to keeping the survey anonymous, the governing bodies should also be clear with universities that no punishments will result from whatever responses are given by students and faculty. 

The law’s political origins are clear, but this doesn’t mean its implications couldn’t continue to threaten the fabric of university thought. In a climate wherein professors already police themselves to avoid “indoctrinating” students and keep their jobs, there’s no need for this survey to create further tension.