Board of Governors’ first ‘intellectual freedom’ inquiry a waste of resources

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida has released its first-ever survey of “intellectual freedom and diversity of perspective,” as required by Bill 233. Unfortunately, the survey itself does not meet the legal requirements for “an objective, non-partisan and statistically valid survey. The results aren’t very helpful because the samples aren’t statistically representative and the response rates were pathetically low.

HB 233 was signed into law in 2021 and created a new law (1001.73(13)) that requires each state university “to conduct an annual assessment of intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoints at that institution.” According to the new law, the survey is supposed to assess “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and how students, faculty and staff “feel free to express their beliefs and views on the campus”.

The board chose to use the SurveyMonkey web platform to create two surveys, one for students and one for employees. They then created institution-specific URLs that were distributed via email to all students and staff (except Florida Polytechnic, which used its learning management system to distribute the link to students).

Since the surveys were anonymous, with the same URL for all respondents in each group, there is no quality control to ensure that the results are from actual students or staff or even people in state universities. This is likely because any attempt to control access to the survey would cause respondents to question the anonymous nature of the survey, but this is still a weakness. Making the survey voluntary also ensured selection bias and low response rates, which also undermined any conclusions that could be drawn from the results. The tables below show student and staff response rates by university.

Arguably, the results are meaningless and not at all statistically representative of students or employees as a whole or at any particular university. The complete list of questions and all results can be found in the report.

Most questions used a 5-point scale: strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree. For simplicity and clarity, I combine them into three categories that should be self-explanatory.

In general, students agreed that their campus and courses provided “an environment conducive to the free expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs”, with UF having a slightly lower proportion of students who agreed with these statements and more students who disagreed.

The most interesting questions from students were numbers 5 and 6, which asked whether instructors use class time to promote their own political beliefs. While only about a quarter of students agreed with this statement, almost as many remained neutral or declined to answer, perhaps suggesting they didn’t really think the survey was anonymous. Of those who agreed (709 of 2,722 at UF and 1,514 of 6,113 at other universities), the vast majority said activist faculty were liberal.

This result seems to contradict question number 12 of the employee survey, which asked whether instructors inject their own political ideas into their courses. The graph is based on 853 professors and instructors from UF and 1,967 from other universities.

Students’ overall perception of faculty is not as bleak as question 6 suggests. , students were just as likely to not know their teacher’s political affiliation as they were to suspect him of being liberals.

Unfortunately, Question 24, which asked employees about their own political leanings, did not separate professors and instructors to compare this result to students’ perceptions of their teachers. Students were not asked about their political leanings, which is an oversight as their own political beliefs could influence their perceptions of their school and teachers.

Next to teachers pushing their political beliefs, the second most important question for students was probably number 12, which asked if they felt intimidated to share their ideas or opinions. One-third of UF students agreed that they felt bullied, which was significantly higher than students at other state universities.

The survey consisted of 21 questions for students and 24 questions for employees. Most seem almost irrelevant because they don’t control the degree program or specific courses. You wouldn’t expect “examples of free and welcome expression (such as speeches, debates with other students or instructors, class assignments, etc.)” to be commonly found in math classes , hard sciences or engineering.

As with many laws, the push to assess “intellectual freedom and diversity of viewpoint” may have been well intentioned, but it was poorly executed, both by the legislature and the board of governors. Even though there is a problem with political bias being pushed on college campuses, having an evaluation pushed by politicians only further increases the political tension, and the letter from the state faculty union that encouraged everyone to ignore the survey is just one example.

If the Board of Governors intends to take this annual requirement seriously, it must hire a genuine survey company to randomly sample and personally contact students and staff, who are then compensated for their time in some way or another and assured of their anonymity by the company which is not associated with the school or the board of directors.


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