If all goes as planned by the Republicans who control the government, my adopted state of Florida will require an annual survey of the political beliefs of students at faculty at public universities. This survey is not occurring in isolation. Trump recently signed an executive order aimed at enforcing “free inquiry” on campus and complaints about the liberal domination of the academy are now stock conservative talking points.
One challenge with assessing this plan is that the details are unclear—questions remain about whether the survey will be compelled (which would seem to violate the 1st amendment), whether the data will be anonymous, who will use the data and to what end.
One concern is the question of whether the survey will be compulsory. If it is, it would seem to force students and faculty to engage in compelled expression of their political beliefs. This seems likely to provoke legal challenges based on the 1st amendment. There is also the moral concern about compelling people to identify their political beliefs to the state, something that seems to smell a bit of tyranny.
If the survey is not mandatory and there is no punishment or retaliation for not participating (which could, in theory, result in entire schools not completing the survey), then the 1st amendment concerns evaporate, but there is still the moral concern about the state seeking such information about the political beliefs of citizens.
There is also the concern about the goal of the survey, its intended consequences and unintended consequences. On the face of it, the planned survey seems innocuous, even benign. It is supposed to have a board that will pick or develop an “objective, nonpartisan and statistically valid survey.” As stated, this survey “considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the university community feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” Objecting to this would seem to be to oppose free inquiry and free expression, which is presumably why this wording was selected. While I certainly support free expression and free inquiry, I think that there are reasonable concerns with this proposed survey.
While one should always be careful when speculating about motives and the “real intentions” behind proposed laws, they can serve as a reasonable guide when trying to sort out the intended consequences of the law. A main driving force behind this proposed law is the Republican House Higher Education & Career Readiness Chairman Cord Byrd.
Byrd advances an appeal to anecdotal evidence to support the need for the survey, alleging some students shared with him their worries about expressing their political views in class due to a fear of having their grades suffer. If such claims are true, then this would a be a problem—a student’s grades should depend entirely on their performance on the coursework. Students do, of course, have the right to report such discrimination and there is a grade appeal process in place at Florida’s public institutions.
I do acknowledge the obvious: there are bad professors and teaching assistants who grade in an unprofessional manner, sometimes based on their own political and moral values. While there are anecdotes that allege professors engage in this practice, there is a lack of statistical evidence that would support the claim that the problem is significant. If this is a broad problem, then more rigorous enforcement of the existing grading policies would be in order—a survey would not seem to address this matter. If the problem is extensive and not adequately handled by the existing system, then another approach would be needed—but evidence would be needed that this is a serious enough problem to warrant such an approach.
Byrd also endeavors to justify the survey by appealing to the claim that students are being indoctrinated at public universities. While this is a common conservative talking point, the evidence for this is lacking. If professors are trying to indoctrinate students, they seem to be very unsuccessful in this task. While students often change their views in college, these changes do not seem to have any liberal bias. While conservative students have spoken of some challenges they faced on campuses, the overall outcome of the experiences are positive and some students have gone from being liberal to conservative. As such, it is reasonable to doubt the notion that universities are engines of liberal indoctrination and hostile to conservative students. Also, this survey seems needless—it is already well known that professors tend to be more liberal than their students, and it is not clear what meaningful new data the proposed survey would provide.
Given Byrd’s reference to fears of indoctrination and grade retaliation, one wonders about the intended consequences of the proposed law. If it is merely to ensure that students are not unfairly graded for their views, then I am fine with that. However, this would hardly seem to address Byrd’s fear of indoctrination. At this point, I can only speculate what the goals are regarding fighting the alleged indoctrination. Will the survey be used to warrant a conservative affirmative action program in which conservatives are hired to balance out the liberals? Will liberals be fired to balance out conservatives? Will there be a system of ideological enforcement put in place to watch professors for attempts to indoctrinate? One suspects that the intent is to weaponize the survey; if it was merely to gather information than there would be no talk of the threat of indoctrination.
If this is the case, then it is worth considering the unintended consequences. While some conservatives might praise this move today because it is a weapon against the liberals, it could provide a tool for examining faculty and students for having the right sort of ideology—something that could be abused by the left in the future.