Last week, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation requiring each Florida College System institution to “conduct an annual assessment of the intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity at that institution.” (Read the full text of the law.) The statute also states that Florida’s Board of Education will select or develop “an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey,” measuring “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community . . . feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” Responses to the legislation have varied, from condemnation that the move will have a chilling effect on campus dialogue to praise for perceptions of the law’s measured approach. 

At Heterodox Academy (HxA) we are monitoring how state institutions will implement this new law, along with any impacts it has on campus culture. Regardless of the current context, the value of viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom on university campuses cannot be overstated. They are instrumental tools for fostering truth-seeking practices. When learners grapple with a range of perspectives, they learn to disagree in constructive ways that sharpen their abilities to uncover truth, identify the best ideas, and create valuable new knowledge. 

While it is important to explore these principles in our national dialogue, politicizing them clouds their meaning and makes it hard to see their worth for all learners. In reality, viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom, when practiced well, can support learning and inquiry for people across the political spectrum. Divorcing these terms from their temporary associations in social media and the news can help us understand their value. 

As we continue to watch Florida’s legislation unfold, we’re sharing some advantages and resources for running a voluntary survey and promoting viewpoint diversity on your campus, as well as some pitfalls and drawbacks to avoid.

Why Viewpoint Diversity?

Use of the term “viewpoint diversity” has become more frequent over the last year. Various ideological groups have occasionally adopted it to further their own political aims. Put simply, viewpoint diversity exists when members of a group or community approach problems and questions from a range of perspectives. This approach invites a conception of ‘diversity that places the complexity of intellectual perspectives alongside traditional diversity (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation). Demographic diversity, while essential in a pluralistic country like ours, does not necessarily map to divergent or shared viewpoints. Where universities aim to improve inclusivity and diversity, welcoming a variety of viewpoints only further strengthens the experiences and learning available on campus.

When viewpoint diversity is paired with strategies for constructive disagreement, advantages abound:

  • Students feels empowered to share their authentic beliefs and arguments 
  • Students learn to share their perspectives with greater rigor, clarity, and empathy
  • Unconstructive or “heated” discussions instead become constructive moments for learning
  • Researchers of all disciplines entertain a wider field of questions and pathways towards truth 
  • We arrive at knowledge that contributes to the betterment of society

So You’re Thinking About Running a Survey

Whether or not you’re reading this from Florida, your department or university might be considering administering a survey to measure their expression climate. Assuming the survey is statistically valid, running one can have multiple benefits for a campus community: 

  • Provide insights into student, faculty, and staff experiences with intellectual diversity on campus
  • Reveal invisible struggles of certain campus groups
  • Yield empirical data, which institutions can use to apply for grants that support improvements to campus climate
  • Deepen campus conversation about the values of viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement on campus

Institutions can go about identifying or designing a survey in many ways. The State University of North Dakota, for instance, opted for an outside collaboration to craft a national survey. HxA has developed and administers our annual Campus Expression Survey, which universities are invited to adopt. Additionally, university teaching centers often include assessment experts who can advise on an in-house survey. 

Before and after administering a survey, it will be important to identify the causes for community concern, so that effective solutions can be identified. In our own 2020 administration of the Campus Expression Survey, we found that 60% of students who were reticent to share their viewpoints on key topics cited judgement from their peers as their main concern. More space to share beliefs may not be a sufficient solution; faculty and students need resources to help them engage differently with others.

Survey Administration Resources:

Additional Survey Considerations

While a survey instrument can help universities learn more about themselves, it can also harm relationships if not adopted with care. When considering a survey, it is important to:

  • Gain buy-in. An effective campus survey is a campus project. Whoever is designing and implementing a survey (administrator, teaching center, outside vendor) should engage the community in a transparent conversation about scope and intent. This process reduces suspicion and increases motivation to participate.
  • Avoid partisan rhetoric. Language can unintentionally signal highly partisan lines. Avoid words and phrases in initial messaging and the survey itself that suggest any intent to push or roust out any belief systems.
  • Be sensitive with results. Any survey will reveal a variety of things about your university, some great and some troubling. Troubling results should be addressed, but in a way that points to solutions, rather than panic. At the same time, moving too quickly to the positives can make the survey feel like a checked box. Temper celebration with acknowledgement of work to be done. 

Viewpoint Diversity Beyond the Survey

Regardless of survey results, how do we actually cultivate viewpoint diversity on campus? Christian author Andy Crouch makes the point that “the only way to change culture is to create culture.” At HxA we see university cultures grow most effectively when change is created from the ground up—starting in classrooms, departments, writing groups, and more. Our tools and resources offer approaches for a variety of individuals to adopt. Some strategies for cultivating viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom on campus include:

  • Adopting the “HxA Way,” a set of norms promoting viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and open inquiry. These norms include “Make your case with evidence,” “Be intellectually charitable,” “Be intellectually humble,” “Be constructive,” and “Be yourself.”
  • Advocating for viewpoint diversity in your faculty or staff committee
  • Encouraging relationships across lines of difference
  • Teaching dialectic thinking
  • Familiarizing yourself with university resources. Organizations like debate clubs, intellectual centers, and teaching centers offer resources and events for navigating disagreement well. 

So What Now?

Viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, and constructive disagreement are critical values that belong at the center of the American university. When practiced on campus, these values improve education and research by challenging us to identify the best ideas and articulate their value as broadly as possible. 

As university campuses reopen this fall, we can do much to promote intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity. Campus citizens should commit to intellectual charity and curiosity — make an effort to be open and listen when others share their beliefs, and when you hear something you disagree with or don’t like, ask earnest questions. Find ways to be constructive when reviewing a peer’s paper, especially if you disagree with their argument. Lean into a new collaboration across lines of difference and be open to potential growth and mutual benefits. 

We must not forget the unique role that colleges and universities play in American society: virtually no other space in our social landscape can invite any question, encourage innumerable discussions and experiments, or draw so many different kinds of people to seek truth together. As a result, our higher education institutions thrive when a multitude of perspectives, solutions, and reflections are welcomed and valued. It is this dynamic that yields new knowledge and insights that can solve society’s problems and cultivate effective citizens.