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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Bill Would Require Political Bias Surveys In Florida Universities, Allow Students To Record Professors' Lectures

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Courtesy of Kierra Hill
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A trio of students move under the arches of a sculpture nicknamed “The French Fries” on the University of Florida campus. UF would be one of the universities required to conduct “intellectually diversity” surveys if the bill is passed.

Republican lawmakers are backing bills that would require students and faculty at Florida’s public universities to complete yearly surveys to identify political bias inside college classrooms. It would also allow students to record their professors during lectures.

The bills would measure whether college instructors – widely perceived as skewing left – were presenting “competing ideas and perspectives” during class lectures. They are intended to help Republicans broaden the party’s appeal to young voters, who traditionally lean Democrat.

So far, the bills in the House and Senate have won approval on votes along party lines. The House bill was expected to be debated on the House floor Thursday. The Senate version was awaiting a vote in the Appropriations Committee, also expected Thursday.

The legislation would require the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, to evaluate with a survey whether students, faculty and staff feel comfortable expressing their beliefs on campus. The survey’s results would be published each year on Sept. 1. Individual responses would be anonymous.

Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, who sponsored the House bill, said Florida college students he declined to identify told him they were penalized academically for disagreeing with a professor. The bill would require the survey to be objective, non-partisan and statistically valid, he said.

“I think it's no secret that the vast majority of college professors, and academia as a whole and university administration, are very, very heavily disproportionately skewed to the left,” Roach said.

The labor union for college professors in Florida fiercely opposes the bills. The president of the United Faculty of Florida, Karen Morian, said mandatory surveys could force instructors to disclose their personal political beliefs to administrators. She also said response rates from small but vocal groups of politically active students could skew results.

“The fact that someone would have to reveal their political opinions as part of their job does not sit well with anyone,” Morian said.

Decades of political research have demonstrated that people with advanced degrees, especially doctoral degrees, lean Democrat.

In Florida, political donors who identified themselves as professors overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates and political committees in both federal and state races during the 2020 elections, according to a review of campaign finance data.

Among contributors in Florida who identified themselves as a professor, more than 10 times as many donated to federal Democratic candidates versus Republicans, with nearly 10 times the amount of total money. In state campaigns, self-described professors in Florida gave 417 contributions worth $48,833 to Democratic candidates versus professors who gave 33 worth a total of $8,860 to Republicans.

It’s not clear whether or how often college instructors reveal their own political beliefs during class lectures or pressure students, even indirectly, to align with them. No one from 11 Republican or conservative student political organizations at colleges and universities across Florida in recent days was willing to discuss their experiences in classrooms.

Republicans have done remarkably well in Florida in recent years, but not among younger voters. Former President Donald Trump won the state last year with 51.2% of votes – triple his 2016 margin of victory – and Republicans made gains in Congress and the state House and Senate. But President Joe Biden won the White House partially on the strength of his support among young voters under 25.

Morian, the head of the faculty labor union, said Republicans’ strength in Florida undermines the idea that universities are churning out a new generation of Democrats.

“It is our job to educate them and provide them with the tools to critically examine evidence put before them,” she said. “This idea that we're changing people's votes by what we say in the classroom, I would argue, doesn't have any validity.”

Roach, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Florida Gulf Coast University and a law degree at the University of Miami, said the survey required in his bill could find left-leaning bias in the classroom.

“This bill is simply asking them to ask questions that may allow us to provide information for a future legislator to make a policy decision if they choose to do so,” Roach said.

South Dakota passed a similar bill in 2019. Its survey results showed that 19.2% of university students said they felt silenced to some degree from sharing their political views, and nearly one-in-four said they were not comfortable expressing their political views with professors. But fewer than 10% said faculty did not respect their freedom of speech.

Another provision in the bills would allow students to record classroom lectures without their professor’s permission. Under Florida law, consent of all people in a recording is required to make it. The new bill would create an exception.

The recordings could not be published, allowing them only for personal use or as evidence in university investigations or legal proceedings. If a recording is published, the professor could seek damages up to $200,000, according to the bill.

Morian said she doubted professors could identify students who post their recordings anonymously online. A professor’s syllabi, emails and course materials are generally treated as public records at state colleges and universities.

“Presenting it to our students is our job, not presenting it to the world,” Morian said.

Roach said professors at public schools are not above public scrutiny.

“They are paid for by the public and they're teaching in a public university funded by the taxpayers,” he said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at tristan.daniel.wood@gmail.com

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