Earlier this week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that may become a model for the nation. House Bill 931, sponsored by State Representative Spencer Roach, requires universities to host public-policy debates and bans the use of political litmus tests in hiring and admissions.
Both provisions address the increasing ideological homogeneity on college campuses. In the past three decades, university faculty and administrators have become overwhelmingly liberal. This orthodoxy of opinion is bad for academic research, student learning, and universities’ reputations in the eyes of the public.
The bill is inspired by two pieces of model legislation. Its first part is based on the Campus Intellectual Diversity Act, written by Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and published by the National Association of Scholars. Kurtz explains the legislation thusly:
Universities can be directed to establish an Office of Public Policy Events (or to assign its duties to an existing administrative office). The new office would have two key responsibilities. First, the office should arrange for debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures from a wide diversity of viewpoints on current public-policy disputes. Participants should be drawn from across the political spectrum, but the office should give particular attention to inviting speakers who hold viewpoints otherwise poorly represented on campus. Second, the office should compile and make public a list not only of the events that it sponsors, but of all events related to public affairs on the campus as a whole. Any debate, policy forum, or individual speaking event open to the entire campus community should be included on the list, with the topic, event title, participants, affiliations, and sponsorship noted.
The idea behind this model legislation comes from Professor George La Noue’s 2019 book, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates. (My colleague George Leef reviewed the book here.) Silenced Stages is the result of La Noue’s study of campus debates at 97 colleges and 28 law schools during the 2014-2015 academic year. La Noue’s conclusion is disheartening: “For most students in American higher education, the opportunity to hear on-campus debates about important public policy issues does not exist.”
La Noue’s follow-up study of North Carolina universities, published by the Martin Center in 2021, revealed similar problems in the Tar Heel State. The research examined the 2018 and 2019 online calendars for 37 four-year North Carolina campuses to record all of their multi-speaker policy events. La Noue concluded, “Most North Carolina campuses seem inhospitable locations for policy discourse open to all undergraduates.”
The second part of the bill is based on the “End Political Litmus Tests in Education Act,” co-written by the Martin Center, the Goldwater Institute, and Stanley Kurtz. This model prohibits public schools and universities from requiring candidates to submit diversity statements or any other document that “promotes a specific partisan, political, or ideological set of beliefs.”
Such statements serve as de facto litmus tests to gauge potential employees’ or students’ agreement with current political orthodoxies. Right now, orthodoxy in educational institutions insists upon fealty to a politicized version of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the 1950s, institutions insisted on anti-communist oaths. Both types of loyalty statements stifle academic freedom and free speech and insert ideology into decisions that should be guided by merit alone. Their use undermines merit and contributes to groupthink on campus.
Prohibiting litmus tests won’t guarantee viewpoint diversity on campus, but it will help to ensure that universities use neutral criteria for admissions and hiring decisions. It will create the conditions in which open inquiry and vigorous debate can thrive. This kind of culture change is sorely needed at college and university campuses across the country.
Kurtz, an author or co-author of both models, praised Florida’s actions, stating, “Florida is about to set the standard when it comes to university campuses hearing both sides of our big public-policy controversies. This is a way to win the culture war with fair, constructive, and innovative policy, fully consistent with America’s principles of free speech, free thought, and liberal education.”
Viewpoint diversity is essential to the academic mission of colleges and universities. Academic freedom, open inquiry, honest debate, and the search for truth rely on diverse viewpoints being welcomed and protected on campus. Florida’s bill should be a model for other states.
Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.