Questioning a Questionnaire

Florida’s faculty union is urging students, faculty and staff members to ignore a state-mandated survey on the climate for college viewpoint diversity.

April 5, 2022
 
Sample question from Florida’s new student viewpoint-diversity survey.

Florida deployed a controversial survey on campus ideological diversity to public college and university students, faculty and staff members this week, after a federal judge refused to grant an emergency injunction against it.

Faculty groups, in particular, have criticized the survey as a political litmus test since it was first proposed in broader, Republican-backed “intellectual freedom” legislation, in 2019. Florida’s statewide faculty union continued to oppose the survey even after it became part of the law last year, ultimately seeking an injunction on the grounds that it violated respondents’ First Amendment rights, and that survey data could be used to target certain academic programs for funding cuts. This latter argument is bolstered by Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s public comments about the bill, specifically about how institutions that are “indoctrinating” students aren’t worth tax dollars.

The union and other survey opponents further argued in court that the questionnaire—while anonymous—would ask for enough demographic information as to be traceable back to individuals, especially nonwhite respondents at small colleges. Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker was unconvinced by these objections, however, and on Friday green-lighted the State University System of Florida to release the first annual survey. It did so early Monday.

What the Survey Asks

The faculty and staff version of the survey asks respondents to what extent they agree or disagree with statements such as, “I have felt intimidated to share my ideas or political opinions because they were different from those of my colleagues,” “Students at my institution are not shielded from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” and (for instructors only), “I rarely inject my own political ideas and beliefs into my classes.”

“Where would you place yourself on the following scale: Conservative/Moderate/Liberal/None of the Above,” the survey asks.

Employees who say there is a poor climate for viewpoint diversity are also asked whether liberal or conservative ideas and beliefs are more prevalent. The survey is anonymous but asks respondents to identify themselves as faculty members with or without tenure, administrators or staff members, as well as by race, gender and one of nine broad subject areas (liberal arts and humanities, business, education, STEM, et cetera).

The student version of the survey includes similar prompts, from a student perspective, plus questions like this: “My professors or course instructors are generally more: Conservative/Liberal/Other/Don’t know.” Students are asked to identify themselves as studying at a public college or university, full-time or part-time, and online or in person.

Urging Nonparticipation

Now that the survey is live, the United Faculty of Florida union is urging professors, staff members and even students not to complete it.

“Florida’s government has no right to know the thoughts, feelings, or political or religious beliefs of anyone, including the higher education community. Privacy is the bedrock of democracy and a safeguard against autocratic control,” Andrew Gothard, union president, said in a statement. “Ignoring this survey is an act that protects individuals of all political persuasions, now and into the future. This survey would not pass ‘validity tests’ in any institutional review process, as there is no way to ensure that responses will reflect the demographics of the institution. It is not worthy of time away from our teaching and research.”

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Repeating other arguments that the union made in court, Gothard called the survey instrument a form of “surveillance” and said that the “specificity of the survey’s demographic questions allows for targeting of faculty, particularly minority faculty, and can be used to attack tenure.” Moreover, he said, “Many of the survey’s questions are leading in nature and imply that there is a problem of viewpoint fairness on our campuses already—this is a conclusion searching for evidence, rather than the other way around.”

Florida State University’s Institute of Politics was involved in the survey project early on, but the institute referred questions about the instrument Monday to the university, which in turn referred questions to the state university system.

Seeking Meaningful Data

Asked if the survey had been approved by an institutional review board, Renee Fargason, system spokesperson, said via email, “This is an opinion survey, not an academic research study.” Fargason said the system had no comment on the faculty union’s guidance against completing the survey.

Spencer Roach, a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives who co-sponsored the original intellectual freedom bill, said Monday that he was surprised by some of the backlash to the survey, as he’d expected more opposition to other elements of the bill (now law), including a provision that allows students to record faculty members while they are teaching, without their knowledge, in order to file free speech complaints against them.

On what he wants to learn from the survey, Roach said that he and colleagues in the Legislature had heard “anecdotal reports from constituents going back a number of years, and this is on both sides of the aisle [of campus viewpoint discrimination]. But those are anecdotal reports, and we wanted to do a little bit of a deeper dive to see if we could gather some empirical data to look into this.”

Any further action will be based on what the surveys reveal, he continued. “I have no prediction on how it will turn out. But I just think that it’s important that we ask that question and see what the data shows.”

Regarding faculty concerns that the survey is part of a larger attack on tenure, Roach said he favors ending tenure in Florida as a way to promote a “more industrious, more meritorious workforce,” but that he hasn’t studied the issue in depth and has no concrete plans to introduce any such legislation in any future term in the state House.

Asked how he’ll interpret the survey results should a major share of respondents ignore it, as the union urges they do, Roach said that numbers of respondents don’t matter as much as the representativeness of respondents. Asked how he’ll assess the representativeness of respondents, given that those who ignore it may be more likely than those who do complete it to believe that there is no viewpoint-diversity problem on campus, Roach said surveys of all kinds commonly encounter selection-bias issues.

“I suspect that if and when we get those results in, we can contact some kind of professional analysis group or have someone that we work with tell us if in fact we’ve got a large enough sample size to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion from,” he said. “I would encourage people to fill it out. I know that college students routinely fill out and I think they’re actually required to fill out a survey after every class that they take. But again, I would just stress that this survey is voluntary, it’s nonpartisan, and I would hope people would help the Florida Legislature here determine whether our campus is truly a marketplace of ideas, because that’s the goal.”

Not ‘Necessarily Comparable’

Roach and other supporters of this survey have noted that similar surveys have been fielded elsewhere, including in North Carolina.

Several faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did publish a survey report on free expression and constructive dialogue on campus in 2020. Among other findings, the report says that 31 percent of students felt they’d become more liberal during their college years, 16 percent said they’d become more conservative and 48 percent said they hadn’t changed their views. Students also said that politics rarely comes up in most classes and that they generally perceived course instructors to be open-minded and encouraging of participation from both liberals and conservatives. At the same time, both liberal and conservative students said they worried about how others would respond to their views.

Timothy J. Ryan, an associate professor of political science at Chapel Hill who co-wrote that report, said that while he only had a “vague” sense of what was happening in Florida, it appears to be very different from his own survey project.

“The Florida work appears to be mostly driven by the Legislature and administration, where ours was faculty-initiated and -led,” Ryan said. “So I don’t think the work is necessarily comparable.”

Asked about how the Florida faculty union’s nonparticipation guidance could affect the survey results, Ryan said this “would indeed be concerning from a validity standpoint. It seems likely to make some groups and constituencies less likely to respond to the survey, which would give the remaining groups outsized influence in the eventual results.”

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