A student crosses campus at the University of South Florida. [ Times (2016) ]

In the first ever “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey taken at Florida’s 12 public universities, 61% of students agreed that their campuses provided an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs.

Asked to share their political leanings, the 36% of employees who identified as moderates made up the largest single group. And a plurality of students — 45% — said they did not feel intimidated about sharing opinions in front of their professors, compared to 28% who said they did.

The results were discussed at Friday’s meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. The survey, circulated in April, was mandated as part of a 2021 state law pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and advanced by Republican lawmakers who asserted that the state’s public colleges and universities are indoctrinating students with liberal ideas.

At a Board of Governors meeting in St. Petersburg that year, Senate President Wilton Simpson said some state universities had become “socialism factories.”

Of the 368,000 students who received the voluntary survey, 8,835 — about 2% — completed it, according to a 55-page report. The largest number of responses came from students at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

The survey attracted a lawsuit from a group of professors and the state’s faculty union, which also called on students and employees to boycott it.

About 25% of the students who participated agreed that professors or instructors use class time to “express their own social or political beliefs without objectively discussing opposing social or political beliefs,” but more than 50% disagreed with that statement.

Students were more split on whether they felt comfortable speaking up about controversial topics. About 44% said they were comfortable and 35% said they weren’t. Similarly, 41% agreed that their campuses did a good job of promoting differing viewpoints, while 27% disagreed.

In addition to the 36% of employees who identified as moderates, 21% said they were conservatives and 17% said they were liberal.

Of the 98,000 employees who received the survey, 9,238 participated, for a 9.8% response rate that was slightly better than that for students. Most were not faculty, instructors or administrators.

Forty-six percent agreed that their campus was tolerant of differing viewpoints, but 33% did not. And of those who disagreed, more felt the dominating viewpoint was liberal.

Most employees disagreed that tenure was tied to a political viewpoint or that they injected their beliefs into classrooms.

Board of Governors member Deanna Michael, representing faculty senates around the state, expressed concerns about the integrity of the survey, which also were raised in the lawsuit.

“This was a first time, it was a big haul and it was very impressive,” Michael said. “But the faculty are interested in student experiences and atmosphere on campuses so we have some suggested directions to go in. For one thing, we’re concerned about the security of the survey because we really, really want statistical relevance of the data.”

Board chairperson Brian Lamb said the report was an important first step. “I’m sure there’s a lot for us to think about and learn,” he said.

Andrew Gothard, president of United Faculty of Florida, said in an interview that the results are “completely invalid, not statistically reliable and represent nothing of value about the nature of higher education in Florida.” The union is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the law.

If the board were to create a survey that protected anonymity and sought to seek a more statistically significant representation on campuses, he said the union would likely support it. While survey participants were not asked to share their names, union officials contend some questions could reveal identifying information.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.