A faculty union representing higher education institutions is calling on students and staff to ignore a survey intended to measure so-called “viewpoint diversity,” including exploration of ideological and political perspectives at universities and community colleges in Florida.
In a Monday letter to its members by email, the United Faculty of Florida claims that the survey is unconstitutional; that many of the questions are “leading in nature,” and the survey itself poses a threat to higher education campuses by potentially chilling speech on campus.
The survey provided to students and faculty Monday said it is anonymous. And participants are free to withdraw at any time. The law sprouted from the 2021 legislative session, HB 233.
“The state will frame any data collected from this survey, regardless of what it shows, as evidence that our profession indoctrinates students,” said Patrick Niner, president of the Florida Gulf Coast University’s UFF chapter, in a written statement Monday.
He continued: “I see no reason, then, for our faculty to willingly provide information for that purpose when the entire instrument was designed to hurt higher education in the first place.”
The law prompts the Florida Department of Education, overseeing the state’s college system, and the Board of Governors, overseeing the state’s universities, to direct each institution to conduct the surveys.
The surveys are to measure “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity,” defined in Florida law as “the exposure of students, faculty, and staff to, and the encouragement of their exploration of, a variety of ideological and political perspectives.”
At issue is that some lawmakers see colleges and universities as liberal bastions and believe conservative voices have been suppressed on campuses. The law requires the survey to be “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid,” though it is not clear how those results will be used.
Students and faculty access the survey through a link in their emails from their institutions.
The Phoenix found that students or faculty members could send the link to people not associated with community colleges or universities across Florida, and the recipients could fill out the surveys.
Emails attaching the survey say that: “No personally identifiable information will be associated with your responses. This survey is anonymous, and responses will only be reported at the group level, not at the individual level.”
But UFF is not so certain, saying that “specificity of the survey’s demographic questions allows for targeting of faculty, particularly minority faculty, and can be used to attack tenure,” in the Monday notification.
For the first eleven questions, the survey asks students to mark their agreement with given prompts. Their options are Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree Nor Disagree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree.
Here are a handful of the statements prompted in this format in the student survey:
/ “I feel that it is important to be able to express my political viewpoints without fear of negative consequences.
/”My professors or course instructors use class time to express their own social or political beliefs without objectively discussing opposing social or political beliefs.”
/”My college or university is doing a good job when it comes to promoting or encouraging diverse political viewpoints.”
/”I would be concerned if most of my professors or course instructors held the same political beliefs.”
/”I have felt intimidated to share my ideas or political opinions because they were different from those of my professors.”
Then, it prompts the students to speculate on the political leanings of their professors.
The question starts with “My professors or course instructors are generally more” and provides only four answer options: “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Other,” “Don’t Know.”
The survey then asks students to determine whether their college or university is generally “more tolerant of liberal ideas and beliefs,” “more tolerant of conservative ideas and beliefs,” or “Equally tolerant of both liberal and conservative ideas and beliefs.”
The survey finishes with questions about students’ race and ethnicity, sex, level of study, as well as questions about their enrollment with a college or university.
The faculty has a different questionnaire.
At the very end of the survey, faculty and staff are asked to identify their political leaning, from “conservative,” “moderate,” “liberal,” or “none of the above.” Students are not asked this.
The survey asks faculty to identify what subject area they teach, whether they teach at a college or university, race and ethnicity, and sex.
For the “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”-styled prompts, many of the questions are similar to the students. But the instructional staff are asked to respond to additional statements, such as:
/”I rarely inject my own political ideas and beliefs into my classes;”
/”Students in my classes are exposed to competing arguments and multiple perspectives on a topic.”
/”An expectation of receiving continuing contract/tenure is that faculty ascribe to a particular viewpoint.” The next question asks whether that particular viewpoint is expected to be “liberal,” “conservative,” or “other.”
The survey asks employees to determine if research and publications on topics that span conservative and liberal viewpoints. If not, faculty are to indicate whether the topics lean more conservative, liberal or other.
Faculty and staff are to weigh in on whether students on their campuses are “shielded” from ideas that they find unwelcomed or even “deeply offensive.”
This is a reference to a different part of the law, which forbids institutions from “shielding” students from opinions and ideas that they may find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive.” The new law also allows students to film lectures without permission of the professors.
‘Ignore the unconstitutional survey’
UFF sent an email to its members Monday calling on faculty, staff and students to “ignore the unconstitutional survey.”
UFF claims that the survey will cause a “chilling effect on freedom of speech and freedom of association on campus because faculty, staff, and students will be wondering whether their words and deeds will be reported to those in power,” according to the Monday letter.
They say that the survey would not pass ‘validity tests’ in “any institutional review process” because there is no way to “ensure that the responses will reflect the demographics” of an institution.
The survey “is a conclusion searching for evidence,” UFF claims in the email, because the questions are “leading in nature” and imply there is already an issue of viewpoint fairness on campuses.
UFF is currently in a federal lawsuit with state education officials, members of the Department of Education (overseeing Florida’s colleges), and members of the Board of Governors (overseeing Florida’s state universities). They are challenging this survey along with other plaintiffs.
The defendants requested an injunction on the surveys, but the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida denied the request Friday, okaying the surveys to be distributed starting this week.
–Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix