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There were few takers for Florida's college and university viewpoint diversity survey, results show

Erich Martin

Results are in from the state's first survey of viewpoint diversity on public university campuses but there's little that may be gleaned from it. Fewer than 10% of faculty and staff at Florida’s 12 public universities who received the viewpoint diversity survey earlier this year, responded to it. The figure was 2.4% for students. The low response rate, coupled with problems in how the survey was put together and distributed, is problematic for parsing out what the responses mean.

Florida’s university system governing board took up a report on the survey, Friday. The state's Republican-led legislature created the survey through a 2021 law.

According to the text of the law, the survey was meant to see how well competing ideas and perspectives were presented and received on public college and university campuses in the state. The survey was also meant to determine whether students, faculty and staff felt free to express their ideas and beliefs on campus and in the classroom. The survey itself was to be designed in a way that was “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid," and that’s where the problems have come in.

“We’re concerned about the security of the survey, and because we really want statistical relevance in the data, we want to see that addressed in the future," said Board of Governors member Deeana Michael, during Friday's brief discussion on the survey results. Michael represents the state's faculty on the board.

The universities sent links to the survey to their students, faculty and staff in April, but the links weren’t secure: allowing the survey to be easily shared with and taken by anyone outside the system. Through a public records request, WFSU found that conservative-leaning groups like the non-profit Heterodox Academy and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni were referenced in the development of the survey in addition to some traditional groups.

An early draft of the survey is also markedly different from the two that were distributed in April to students faculty and staff. That’s not particularly unusual by itself, but subsequent iterations show discussions of how certain questions should be worded, and illuminate the challenges of putting the survey together. In an April interview with WFSU, United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard said it would be unlikely that anyone would be able to make any determinations from the survey due to problems with its design.

“We did learn recently that the survey submitted by the Institute of Policy [at Florida State University] is not the survey that went out and we’re trying to see why that is," Gothard said at the time.

" When you look at the questions, you can easily see how they’re leading in nature. They’re a conclusion looking for evidence.”  

The United Faculty of Florida encouraged students, faculty and staff to boycott the survey.

Rebecca Underwood, then a junior at the University of Central Florida, was among the 320,000 students who were emailed the survey, and among the 2.4% of them who responded. Underwood says she received an email about the survey while at work and thought it was a scam at first. A quick scroll through her twitter feed confirmed the survey was legitimate

so she decided to take it.

Some questions involving how students identified politically, left Underwood perplexed. Among the answers were "liberal, conservative, or other." That, to Underwood, was too binary.

“There are some very large 3rd party groups in Florida, like the libertarians and no party…to put it in simple terms like conservative and liberal—this is one of the more biased questions in my opinion," she said.

Underwood's overall impression of the survey?

“I mean...it wasn’t bad…as a political science major I think about these things a lot but most people taking them, they don’t care…I think while they can be helpful for certain things, they can also be dangerous," she said of the survey.

Republicans pitched the survey for years prior to its approval in 2021.

A Pew Research report issued in 2019 notes the views about higher education have become increasingly polarized, with more Republicans becoming dissatisfied and suspicious about the role colleges have in society—on everything from admission decisions to free speech. Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, sponsored the bill in 2021. He said he backed the creation of the survey due to “anecdotal stories” he and others have heard about students being penalized for their views or even self-censoring out of fear they could face retaliation for voicing a perspective that didn't align with their professor's or other students.

"Certainly students have a right and any of us have a right… to withhold our views…but what we’re getting at is whether students are self-censoring because they believe they’re going to be penalized for sharing constitutionally-protected viewpoints, either through their grades or Through some other sort of punitive action," Roach said during a March 2021 committee hearing.

During its brief review of the results Board of Governors Chairman Brian Lamb called the survey a first step.

“I’m sure there’s a lot for us to think about and learn, this was a process for us, and we will take in that feedback and see how we can get better in the future.”  

Florida A&M University had the lowest response rate with less than 1% of students responding. New College of Florida had the highest student response rate at 12.1%. FAMU and the University of Florida recorded the lowest staff response rate at 6%, while Florida Polytechnic had 21% of its staff respond to the survey, the highest in the state.

The survey also went out to the state's colleges, but no results have been released.

A lawsuit challenging the survey is ongoing amid ever-present fears from many professors and educators that potentially tainted results will be used to further a belief that conservative voices aren't getting enough traction.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.