How Florida Universities Can Continue their Rise to National Prominence

By William Mattox

Director, JMI’s Marshall Center for Educational Options

Click here to read the full report 

In April 2019, the presidents of all 12 state universities in Florida joined State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser in issuing a joint statement affirming their commitment to “full and open discourse and the robust exchange of ideas and perspectives on our respective campuses.”1

The Florida Statement on Free Expression, which won the enthusiastic endorsement of Governor Ron DeSantis, affirms that one of the main purposes of higher education is “to provide a learning environment where divergent ideas, opinions and philosophies, new and old, can be rigorously debated and critically evaluated.”

In addition, the Florida Statement argues that debating ideas and challenging opinions helps students develop intellectual skills and fosters the kind of “personal and scholarly growth” that is central to a university’s mission.

While The Florida Statement on Free Expression says little that would have been considered controversial a generation ago, the document is nevertheless very significant in these times because it implicitly acknowledges that the campus climate in American higher education has changed markedly in recent years.

Sadly, many nationally-recognized universities have actively adopted illiberal campus policies, such as highly restrictive speech zones and speech codes. Moreover, many purportedly elite institutions have passively tolerated “idea suppression” tactics on the part of student activists (such as disinviting speakers and shouting down those with whom they disagree).

In view of these changes in campus climate, it is refreshing to see the university presidents of an entire state join together to affirm the importance of open inquiry, divergent thought, and the rigorous testing of ideas in the pursuit of truth. Floridians should be proud that their university system became the first in the country to issue a statement of this kind – an act that garnered the attention of many national and state observers.2

The Florida Statement serves as evidence that our state’s higher education leaders agree with an observation made earlier by The James Madison Institute in our 2017 report, Free Expression and Intellectual Diversity: How Florida Universities Currently Measure Up. That report suggested that Florida’s university system could gain a comparative advantage in the higher education marketplace by distinguishing itself as a national leader in promoting open inquiry and viewpoint diversity.

Specifically, JMI argued:

Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, all of this campus craziness represents an opportunity for our state. For if the Florida higher education system were to become a haven for free expression and viewpoint diversity – and to become known as such – our universities would be very well positioned to meet the growing demand for intellectually-serious academic study at an affordable cost.3 

Little appears to have changed in higher education nationally since JMI penned those words three years ago. If anything, the need for bold leadership promoting free expression in the pursuit of truth seems even greater today than it was in 2017.

Accordingly, this report will build upon JMI’s 2017 report to do two things. First, it will measure how much progress our state universities are making in promoting free expression and viewpoint diversity. Second, it will seek to identify some “next steps” that would help Florida’s universities continue their rise to national prominence as beacons of intellectual freedom and academic excellence.