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House Revives 'Intellectual Freedom' Survey To Gauge Whether Universities Promote Different Views

Dec 14, 2019
Originally published on December 13, 2019 4:55 pm

Are college and university campuses open markets for ideas or incubators of narrow thought? Some Republican lawmakers want to know what’s really happening in the state’s public higher education classrooms by asking students and professors to take an anonymous survey. But Democrats, and even some of those professors argue that’s a violation of free speech and are suspicious of the motives behind the plan. 

Democrats call it a great bill. They say they love its proposals, like tracking the growth of administrators versus faculty, giving schools more credit for graduating low-income students, attempts to keep textbook costs down and a plan to repeal the state’s “emerging preeminent” designation for schools and replacing it with “State universities of distinction” -- an effort to recognize more schools for their unique contributions. Republicans like Representative Amber Mariano likes it too.  

“I really think this will be transformative for our higher education system," Mariano said. "I think we are now going to—instead of making those universities try to focus on becoming preeminent, they’re going to be able to find their wheelhouse and attract students from around the country.”

But what Democratic Rep. Jennifer Webb says he can’t get behind: a requirement in the bill for the state university system governing board to produce an annual report on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at each of the state’s 12 public universities.

“The tool, and what we hope to accomplish, are a mismatch. And that’s based on Colorado that passed a similar bill. The limitations of the survey they passed there, they noted explicitly they didn’t get the level of detail that would actually be helpful in understanding universities climate.”

Florida State University Professor Matthew Lotta says, “the devil is in the details." Lotta is with the United Faculty of Florida. "We don’t know how it can be non-partisan when the impetus behind it is fairly partisan and based on a set of partisan assumptions about what happens on campus.” 

Lotta's got questions about the survery would work.

“If the result of the survey is not to the legislature’s liking would faculty be hired and fired based on their political beliefs…would faculty and students be required to take the survey and what happens if they refuse?...Compelled speech is as much a violation of the first amendment as prohibited speech.”

Last year’s intellectual freedom survey proposal was rejected by the Senate and failed in the legislature. Representative Ray Rodriguez was asked whether the Senate is favorable to his idea this year.

“That’s actually a loaded question. I’d say it depends on which Senators you speak to. Ultimately, I believe, it’s something that will have to be negotiated out at the end" he said.  

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