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Bill would require intellectual freedom survey at Florida universities

Adding a mandate for an annual survey of “intellectual freedom” on state university campuses, a House panel Wednesday approved a wide-ranging higher education package that would expand Bright Futures merit scholarships.

The bill (HB 423), approved on a 12-1 vote by the Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee, is similar to legislation (SB 4) passed unanimously by the Senate last week.

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Both bills would permanently expand Bright Futures awards to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for top-performing students known as “academic scholars.” The bills would cover 75 percent of tuition and fees for Bright Futures recipients known as “medallion scholars.”

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who is sponsoring the bill, added a provision to require that each of the 12 state universities conduct a “nonpartisan” survey of students, faculty and administrators to assess “the extent to which competing ideas, perspectives and claims of truth are presented” and how “safe and supported” members of the university community feel in expressing their views.

Rodrigues said the requirement for the survey was based on national news reports and was not related to any incidents in Florida. He said he knew of no other state conducting a similar survey, although he said one was carried out at a university in Colorado.

“What has been missing is a way to measure or determine if intellectual diversity actually exists,” Rodrigues said. “And more importantly, particularly in this day and age, whether students and faculty feel safe and secure in expressing their own individual viewpoints.”

Rodrigues said the survey, which would be conducted under the supervision of the university system’s Board of Governors, would be given to the Legislature. Lawmakers would determine if any other action was necessary.

Two House Democrats objected to the amendment, with Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, saying the survey mandate was “putting the cart before the horse.”

“I’m not really hearing it from the universities or the students or the general public that we really do have a problem on the campuses,” Stark said.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said he was concerned that the annual survey would put pressure on state universities to invite more controversial speakers like a white nationalist who spoke at the University of Florida last year, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Smith said he did not want the universities to see the provision as “some sort of quota to invite provocative and controversial speakers just so that they can prove a point to the state that they have promoted some sort of intellectual diversity.”

“I don’t think that’s good public policy,” Smith said.

Smith and Stark voted for the bill, saying their concerns were outweighed by the merits of the legislation, including the scholarship expansion.

Like the Senate bill, the House version would revamp a number of policy areas in the state university system.

It would revise the performance standards for the schools, including adding a four-year graduation measure for full-time students and a six-year graduation measure for students receiving Pell grants, which is federally funded financial aid that is received by low-income students.

The House bill would add a provision requiring the University of South Florida to reconsolidate its main Tampa campus with branch campuses at USF-St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

The House bill, like the Senate’s, would require state universities to develop “block” tuition plans, where students would pay a flat fee for courses rather than paying by the credit hour.

The legislation would formally establish programs aimed at bringing more “world-class” faculty to state universities and recognizing high-performing professional schools.

Rodrigues said higher-education policy changes, including a move to performance funding for the schools, has improved the quality of the system over the past few years, and the new legislation will build on those improvements.

“I believe if we continue to push the envelope, we can take a great system and make it even better,” Rodrigues said.

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