What happened? Almost no FL university students responded to a new “intellectual freedom” survey

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Florida’s public university students seemed reluctant to fill out a controversial survey on so-called “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” that was prompted by the Legislature, as about 8,800 of some 368,000 students bothered to submit responses.

That’s only a 2.4 response rate, according to draft survey results posted on the website of the Board of Governors, which oversees the statewide university system.

The draft results were published in preparation to discuss findings at a BOG meeting on Friday, but the very low response rate raises questions about whether officials can glean enough information from the already contentious questionnaire.

The intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity survey is a result of legislation passed during the 2021 legislative session, with the goal of selecting “an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each state university which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the university community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

The state’s community college system was also surveyed. The Phoenix reached out to the Florida Department of Education, which oversees state colleges, to find out if there are results for those schools, but the agency hasn’t responded.

According to the draft results, only 8,835 students from Florida’s 12 state universities did the survey, out of 368,120 students who received it. That led to a 2.4 percent response rate.

The survey responses were collected from April 4 through April 8 this past spring. There were two versions of the survey, one for students and one for employees, which included faculty and staff.

Some schools had a higher response rate than others.

For example, at New College of Florida in Sarasota, 141 students responded out of 636 total students contacted, resulting in a 12.1 percent response rate from students.

Florida Polytechnic University, in Lakeland, in Polk County, also had a 12.1 response rate among students, with 171 students submitting the survey out of 1,411 total.

The lowest student response rate was at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, where 53 students responded out of 8,393 surveys provided. That’s a 0.6 percent response rate. Also in Tallahassee, Florida State University posted a low response rate of 1.8 percent out of 43,936 students who received the survey.

The next lowest response rate goes to Florida International University, in Miami, with only 413 students out of 49,477 students responding to the survey, resulting in a 0.8 response rate.

Since its inception in the legislature, the survey has long been criticized as a means for Republican lawmakers to cast Florida universities and colleges as liberal bastions and claim that conservative voices are being suppressed, the Phoenix previously reported.

And when the surveys were released in April, the Phoenix found that people who were not university students, faculty or staff could easily gain access to the surveys if someone sent them the link, raising questions on the security and validity of the survey.

Determining a valuable response rate for a survey is tricky, according to various online survey sites.

SmartSurvey, an online survey site, says that there are a “lot of factors that can affect response rates, from the survey distribution method that is used and whether it’s an external or internal survey, to how strong your relationship is with your respondents before issuing the survey.”

It adds: “However, more generally and irrespective of your survey type, typical survey response rates can lie anywhere in the region between the 5% to 30% range, with those surveys distributed from unknown senders tending to be at the lower end of this scale.”

SurveyMonkey, the program that the Board of Governors used for the survey, did not provide a range to help determine a worthwhile response rate, only saying that effective response rates “can be as high as 20% to 30% (emphasis in context).”

Of the 2.4 percent of university students who responded to the questions, most of the responses seem to be either neutral or supportive of how universities navigate so-called “viewpoint diversity,” the draft data suggests, though the results also indicate a smaller population of student respondents who believe university campuses are more tolerant of liberal ideas than conservative ones.

On the other hand, professors and staff had a higher rate of responses to the survey, the draft results show.

Out of 98,704 total university employees who received surveys, 9,238 responded, resulting in a 9.4 percent response rate.

The draft results show that 4,336 respondents self-identified as staff, 1,666 identified as faculty with a continuing contract or tenure, 1,308 identified as an administrator, and 1,154 identified as faculty without tenure or a continuing contract. There were 551 respondents who identified as “other” and 223 who did not provide a response.

The highest response rate among university professors and employees was at Florida Polytechnic University, with a 21.6 response rate. That’s 101 employees out of 468.

The lowest employee response rates were at Florida A&M University and University of North Florida, of Jacksonville, both with a 6 percent. For FAMU, that’s 140 employees out of 2,323. And for UNF, that’s 255 employees out of 4,249 contacted for the survey.

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