Florida lawmakers conducted a survey of intellectual diversity. The students were not interested.

Last year, Florida enacted a law requiring an annual survey of students and staff at public universities to assess the climate of intellectual diversity on their campuses. Some academics criticized the effort from the start, calling it an attempt by state Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis to shore up the argument that conservative students feel unwelcome in college classrooms.

The results of the first survey are in, and one thing is clear: students were not particularly interested in completing it.

Only 2.4 percent of the more than 364,000 students sent to the survey completed it, a response rate so low that it casts doubt on the results. Employee response rates were slightly better, with 9.4 percent of the more than 98,000 employees surveyed, most of whom were employees, not instructors.

The low response rate may not have been entirely random. Florida UK, the union representing professors, urged students, instructors and staff to ignore the survey, saying it was not done in good faith.

Indeed, DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have not shied away from sharing strong beliefs about the intellectual climate of colleges. At a signing ceremony for the 2021 Research Act, DeSantis called college campuses an “intellectually repressive environment.”

The 2 percent response rate means there is little meaningful to the survey’s results, said Amy Binder, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego. He said it was unlikely to be representative of all students, and he raised questions about the methodology.

He said the way the poll was advertised could have attracted a certain group of students. “Freedom of speech, diversity of views, and concerns about wake-up time have become more of an issue for conservatives than liberals. The people who would be more interested in this are conservative students because they already think about diversity of viewpoints as a campus issue,” he said.

Lawmakers who sponsored the law requiring the survey did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday. A spokeswoman for the university system’s Board of Governors, which administered the survey in April and reviewed its results Friday, said the survey is the subject of pending litigation and therefore board members cannot discuss it.

According to the survey results, an overwhelming majority of respondents agreed or agreed that their campus “provides an environment for the free expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs.” Meanwhile, 3,913 agreed or strongly agreed that they “feel comfortable talking about controversial topics,” while 3,094 disagreed or strongly disagreed.

The survey asked about respondents’ race and gender, but did not ask about their political affiliation. Of the 8,800 respondents, 5,192 were identified as white. Florida A&M University, a historically black university with an 82.9 percent black student body, had the lowest student participation rate: 0.6 percent.

Andrew Gothard, professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and president of the United Faculty of Florida, said the low response rate made it clear that students and staff at Florida colleges are not concerned about intellectual diversity. (The union is the plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the legality of the study.)

“This is a fight created by Governor DeSantis,” he said. “This study was a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Gothard also pointed to technical problems with the survey: He said a person could take it multiple times, and there was no way to verify that someone identified as a student in the survey was actually a student.

“This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Any group could use this poll to free up money from those who don’t currently reflect their political ideology,” Gothard said.

Although the survey received a weak response from students, it could be a sign of things to come. Ray Rodrigues, a former Republican state senator who supported intellectual diversity legislation, is poised to become the university system’s new chancellor. The search committee recommended him for the position on Friday. (His office did not respond to a Chronicle I would like a comment on Monday.)

“We have a responsibility to teach students how to think for themselves instead of teaching them what to think,” Rodrigues said last year when the bill was signed into law. “Without a measure of intellectual diversity, it is impossible to know whether Florida taxpayers are providing education or indoctrination.”

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