For the second time in recent years, the University of North Carolina (UNC) has taken action to improve its campus culture and make it more accommodating to diverse viewpoints. And, for the second time in recent years, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) ought to feel embarrassed and ashamed for resisting similar campus reforms in our state.
Late last month, the UNC Board of Governors adopted a policy against compelled speech on campus. Specifically, UNC prohibited any requirement that prospective students or faculty submit a “diversity statement” as a condition of admission, hiring, or promotion. Mandatory diversity statements, which have arisen in recent years at many schools, have been called by one observer “loyalty oaths to the woke mob.”
The UNC policy mirrors a proposal recently introduced in the Florida Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We must ensure that our institutions of higher learning are focused on academic excellence and the pursuit of truth, not the imposition of trendy ideology,” Gov. DeSantis has said.
Nevertheless, Florida’s faculty union has come out in “lock-step opposition” to the legislation endorsed by Gov. DeSantis. “We cannot stand by idly while a tyrant destroys our state’s future,” says union president Andrew Gothard. “UFF will fully oppose every step of this so-called ‘reform’ program.”
The faculty union’s resistance feels like déjà vu all over again.
That’s because two years ago, Gov. DeSantis signed into law a UNC-inspired proposal over vehement faculty union opposition. That proposal called for an annual survey of Florida students and faculty at state universities to measure free expression and viewpoint diversity, similar to a survey that an ideologically diverse team of UNC scholars had conducted on their Chapel Hill campus.
Now, one would think that “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid” data collection would be embraced by scholars at Florida’s major research universities. Especially since free expression and viewpoint diversity are so central to the mission of higher education – pursuing truth.
Nevertheless, from the start, the UFF objected to this research project. They claimed the (anonymous and voluntary) surveys were intended to send “a clear message that those that proliferate views with which the governor disagrees will find their funding in jeopardy.”
After losing the 2021 legislative battle, a group of Florida professors tried to convince U.S. District Judge Mark Walker to prevent the survey from going forward. When that effort failed, union leaders then sought to sabotage the research by urging students and faculty to refuse to participate in the survey.
Not surprisingly, a number of professors from outside Florida are having trouble standing with the UFF. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at colleges and universities are often money-wasters that stifle academic freedom,” writes University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman in a recent op-ed. “On that, the Florida governor and I can agree.”
Thankfully, most Florida legislators also appear unfazed by the UFF’s opposition. Indeed, they appear to be following a pattern – that is now well-established in K-12 education – whereby Florida education policymakers do not allow unreasonable (and self-interested) union opposition to get in the way of much-needed changes to improve student opportunities and outcomes.
That ought to please all Floridians who care about campus free expression and viewpoint diversity. And it ought to please all of us who see no reason why our state’s flagship universities should have to remain in the shadow of schools like UNC.
William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute. This op-ed is adapted from JMI’s new report, “Improving Campus Culture.”