Intellectual Freedom or Indoctrination? Debate Over University Views Goes Back Decades

Apr 10, 2019

Students on FSU campus
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

The Florida House is considering a bill that would require an annual report on intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at the state’s public universities. The measure has drawn criticism from some and praise from others. 

There is a growing view from some Americans that public colleges and universities are biased toward liberal points of view. It's significantly higher for Republicans, who say universities are going off course. The Foundation for Individual Rights in education (FIRE) a non-partisan group that defends civil rights on college campuses, conducts annual surveys of free speech on college and university campuses.

Conservative students, we find, are 14 percentage points more likely to feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions in the classroom than their liberal peers," says FIRE spokesman Nico Perrino. "But at the same time, we find that conservative students are much less interested in withdrawing a guest speaker’s invitation to speak at a campus if that speaker is controversial, we find that 78% of very liberal students support the withdrawal of certain controversial invitations to guest speakers."

In 2017, University of Florida students booed guest speaker and white nationalist Richard Spencer. Protestors outnumbered the supporters. In 2016, former Brietbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was greeted by protestors ahead of his event at Florida State University.  

Informal interviews with Florida A&M and FSU students show differences at the schools. FAMU student, Roderick Bryant, says he is comfortable voicing his positions on campus.

"I am comfortable expressing my political views on campus because I do feel there are like-minded students and you know peers that are just like me that feel the need to sometimes express that. I do feel like I won’t be criticized or kind of like deterred from doing so,” he says.

And while some FSU students felt the same, Gatlin Lowe says free speech comes with social backlash.          

“I’m a conservative so it’s kinda also very intimidating cause you see a lot of stuff on social media. And it’s like people getting beat up for wearing like a Trump hat."

Universities haven’t always been perceived as “liberal”. That shift, says FAMU history professor Reginald Ellis, began in the 1960’s.

“There was an idea of how to galvanize the 'liberal base' and their concept was [to take] a more study [based], academic way of looking at it," he says. "The conservative movement went a more grass-roots up concept of the 'forgotten man' if you will [and] the concept of that movement, we really saw that with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s."

Ellis says colleges and universities began reflecting the shifting ideologies.

“More underrepresented groups such as women, individuals in the LGBTQ community, and African-Americans became the base of the liberal movement and so you start to see colleges and universities start to give a voice to these different groups. And, you start to see the creation of different disciplines such as the African-American studies and gender studies."

The issue has also gained steam from high profile leaders who have their take on it. Recently, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on campus free speech. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently told the state university system governing board he doesn’t want the schools "going the way of Berkeley".