Backlash after Florida governor signs bill against ‘indoctrination’ at colleges

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP</span>
Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, sparked backlash this week when he signed legislation cracking down on so-called educational “indoctrination” at colleges and universities, soon after the state banned critical race theory in its public schools.

“It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately now, the norm is really these are more intellectually repressive environments,” DeSantis said during a press conference at a Fort Myers middle school.

The new law requires colleges and universities to conduct an annual survey measuring “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on their campuses. It’s an effort to gauge “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented”, as well as how free students, faculty and staff feel “to express their beliefs and viewpoints”, the bill says.

Related: America’s top general defends study of critical race theory by military

But critics fear the assessment will instead end up intimidating teachers, chilling free speech and disproportionately representing the perspectives of those who feel aggrieved. They are also concerned the data could be wielded to punish faculty or universities.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner who is challenging DeSantis for governor next year, compared his actions to “what authoritarian regimes do”.

DeSantis is promulgating “non-existent issues” and, along with Republican legislators, “targeting our public universities with partisan attacks”, added Josh Weierbach, the executive director of Florida Watch, a progressive organization.

“It’s unfortunate our governor continues to manufacture fake controversies designed to distract Floridians from his abysmal record of raising taxes and manufacturing culture war controversies to appeal to Republican presidential primary voters in 2024,” Progress Florida’s executive director, Mark Ferrulo, said in a statement.

The incendiary measure will take effect on 1 July and is one of three education-related bills DeSantis signed into law this week. Another will ensure high schoolers “receive instruction on the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies” during government class, he said.

At DeSantis’s behest, Florida’s board of education also recently banned educators from teaching critical race theory, which analyzes racism as a systemic, persistent part of American life and has been weaponized by Republicans who say teaching about oppression in this form is divisive. The board similarly barred materials connected to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a widely lauded effort that focuses on slavery’s consequences as well as Black Americans’ contributions.

DeSantis framed the “intellectual diversity” college survey partially as a response to parents, whom he said worry about their kids being “indoctrinated” at university.

“That’s not worth tax dollars, and that’s not something that we’re gonna be supporting going forward,” he warned.

Other Republicans quickly showed their support.

“What you don’t hear a lot about from our universities is the thing that matters the most: the diversity of thought. The diversity of ideas,” said Chris Sprowls, the Florida house speaker.

“We’ve decided that one ideological standard will win the day, but the thing is we’re losing because we’re not having real conversations.”