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Proposal for university ‘intellectual freedom’ survey sparks debate

‘There is a concern that there is more indoctrination than education taking place.’

A proposal that Florida survey its universities to gauge “intellectual freedom” sparked sharp debate Wednesday in a House of Representatives committee over whether the state’s institutions are indoctrinating students in liberalism or whether the move is being proposed because conservatives want a reason to crack down on academic speech they don’t like.

“There is a concern that there is more indoctrination than education taking place,” in Florida’s state universities, declared state Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican who chairs the House Higher Education and Career Readiness Subcommittee.

“They are real concerns. And I think it’s only getting worse,” he said.

HB 839, which would require Florida public universities to survey faculty members and students about their personal viewpoints, was approved Wednesday by a House panel.  Democrats were concerned about what lawmakers would do with the results.

Their battling viewpoints emerged over what is largely a side provision in a higher education performance funding fix bill that otherwise received widespread, bipartisan applause Wednesday from the committee. However, the debate over the potential survey was a strong dividing point, as that panel approved the bill with a largely partisan vote.

“The idea that we don’t have intellectual diversity in our state university system is wrong,” declared Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ray Rodrigues of Estero, addresses a long list of revisions to the State University System performance-based funding legislation that was approved last year. Some of the changes proposed in HB 839, including modifying some of the measurements of universities’ performance, were hailed as important fixes by all members of the committee. However, a couple of the provisions, including a point that adds universities’ four-year graduation rates as a measurement, also drew some opposition.

But it was the proposed intellectual freedom survey that brought out strong opposition from university faculty representatives at the meeting and sparked debate over whether Florida’s state universities are liberal bastions where conservative faculty and students feel pressured to accept or get along with liberal idealism, or whether they are at risk of a conservative government in Tallahassee trying to tamp down liberal speech.

The bill calls for Florida Board of Governors to conduct annual surveys of faculty, students, and administrators to gauge intellectual freedom. The survey, Rodrigues said, would have to be objective, non-partisan, statistically valid annual intellectual freedom and diversity assessments at each state university.

“The point of the survey… is we want to take politics out of it. The question is this: Do our faculty feel free in the classroom to teach or do they feel like they’re being pressured by administration or faculty leadership to teach in one way or the other?” Rodrigues said. “We don’t know the answer to that until we ask them. Only when we ask them will we get an honest answer. I think we owe that to the students and faculty to do that.

“What we heard earlier was: Will this threaten faculty? I reject that completely. We’re in a system that provides tenure for our faculty. Our faculty cannot be fired because of a viewpoint that they presented. To say that a survey threatens them, it’s not right. It’s just not right,” he continued.” Finally, I would say this. we celebrate diversity at all points. Why shouldn’t we identify if we have intellectual diversity? And if the survey comes back and shows we do have diversity, we should be celebrating that.”

As far as what the Legislature would do with the survey results: “Whoever the future policymakers are will have to address that,” Rodrigues said. “Not me, because I am term-limited.”

Yet Rodrigues’ comments were in response to Smith and a couple of others who raised concerns about the way the survey might be created, given, presented and used later. They cautioned that bias can be in the eye of the beholder, and if the survey is created by someone with a political viewpoint, it will find a political problem.

“I believe it threatens to exacerbate the divides within our community,” said Matthew Lata, a professor in the Florida State University College of Music who also is a representative of the United Faculty of Florida professors’ union. “Here’s why: There are no details in this clause. We are mandating a survey that presumably would come up with a metric. We’re talking about purely subjective matters here. We’re talking about political views. We’re talking about whether things are addressed correctly in the classroom. … By its nature, such a survey cannot be impartial and bipartisan.

“I shouldn’t be forced to tell the state of Florida how I feel about certain political matters,” Lata said. “Let’s say in political science you have 20 people and the survey determines 15 are liberal and five are conservative. Are you going to fire the liberals and hire more conservatives? What would happen?”

“I really don’t like the survey,” Smith said. “It’s because I’m worried that the survey itself is a predetermined assumption that our state university system is a collection of liberal institutions that are graduating young people with progressive ideals to go out into the world to promote those ideals. The survey also suggests there is no intellectual diversity. To the dismay of many people, including everyone here on this committee, a known white supremacist was the guest speaker at the University of Florida last year.” [Actually in late 2017.]

Byrd flatly rejected Smith’s assessment and drew on his own experiences as a student, when he said he had a professor who was an avowed communist and a bully about his viewpoints.

“This committee is an example of the marketplace of ideas. We’ve heard diversity of thought,” Byrd said. “I don’t think that is happening on our college campuses. That’s why we need the survey.”

HB 839 needs to clear two more House panels before it could go to the chamber floor. A Senate version (SB 1296), filed by Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican, has not been heard in committees.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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