Flor⁠i⁠da un⁠i⁠vers⁠i⁠⁠t⁠⁠i⁠es would benef⁠i⁠⁠t⁠ from free express⁠i⁠on survey

By: William Mattox / 2020



A recent survey conducted by a team of ideologically diverse scholars at the University of North Carolina ought to get the attention of Florida legislators and university officials interested in positioning our state schools for future success in the increasingly illiberal world of higher education.

The survey, which measured the influence of “cancel culture” intimidation, found that roughly two of every five UNC students had engaged in “self-censorship” on campus — either out of fear of being ostracized by their peers or of receiving a lower grade from their professors. Not surprisingly, students with minority or “politically incorrect” viewpoints were particularly likely to refrain from voicing their opinions.

The UNC study is important because viewpoint diversity and spirited discourse are critical to the pursuit of truth. If students and professors perceive that they must tiptoe around certain topics lest they “trigger” someone, that is not an environment conducive to learning — or to new discovery. So, university leaders ought to value knowing how well their campus culture promotes open inquiry and free expression.

In recent years, Florida legislator Ray Rodrigues has championed a bill that would require the state’s public colleges and universities to annually conduct “an objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid survey” similar to the UNC study. The Rodrigues legislation, which he recently introduced for the 2021 session, would seek to measure “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the [college or university] feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

In the past, the Rodrigues proposal has met opposition from the United Faculty of Florida, whose leaders have expressed concern about how these annual surveys might be used.

“If the results of the survey were not to the Legislature’s liking, would faculty be hired and fired based on their political beliefs, to change and adjust the political balance?” FSU professor Matthew Lata has asked.

Rodrigues defends his proposal by noting the inconsistency of some of his critics, “If you look at faculty unions across the state, they embrace diversity in every area except intellectual diversity. Why is that?”

In truth, Florida faculty members and university leaders ought to be heartened by the example of the UNC study. It shows what can happen when scholars with different ideological perspectives work together to collect reliable data that assesses how welcoming their campus is to those whose views challenge conventional thinking.

In the absence of such data collection, universities may be blind to serious campus culture problems — and may see their reputation grossly distorted by an embarrassing incident of one kind or another.

Public policymakers also should be heartened by the UNC example. As the UNC scholars note, state universities in “swing states” like North Carolina (and Florida) typically serve a student population reflective of their state’s ideological diversity. As such, “swing state” universities are extremely well positioned to provide national leadership in how to create more ideologically-inclusive campus cultures.

The Florida Legislature ought to encourage university officials to seize the opportunity to provide that kind of scholarly leadership, knowing that this will aid our state higher education system’s continued rise to national prominence.

William Mattox is the author of a new James Madison Institute study, “Combatting Idea Suppression: How Florida’s Universities Can Continue Their Rise to Prominence,” from which this column is taken. 

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