COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A higher education bill touted by supporters as promoting intellectual freedom and equality has university faculty across the state worried about its potential to do the opposite.
Senate Bill 83, known as the “Higher Education Enhancement Act,” prohibits a slew of things on college campuses, including mandatory diversity training; faculty strikes during contract negotiations; working with Confucius Institutes and other Chinese research institutions; and using “political and ideological litmus tests” in hiring and admissions decisions. Its sponsor, Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), called it a “course-correction” for universities and colleges that have focused too much on diversity and inclusion at the expense of “diversity of opinion.”
“We need to teach our students how to think, not what to think,” Cirino, who is also the chair of the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee, said.
Cirino’s bill asks colleges and universities to commit to the mission of educating students “by means of free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth.” That includes fostering academic spaces where all viewpoints and opinions are welcomed, Cirino said.
But the bill’s critics, including professors and other university faculty, use other words to describe the bill: It’s “censorship,” an “overreach,” “Draconian,” “anti-education.”
“It’s going to hurt the ability to teach our students what we need to teach them, to give our students a good education,” said Theresa Kulbaga, a feminist theory scholar and communications committee chair of the Faculty Alliance of Miami University.
SB83 requires universities to post on their websites all course syllabi, including the instructor’s biographical information, a list of reading materials and descriptions of what each lecture will discuss. It’s not realistic for professors to offer a play-by-play of each class period before the semester starts, Kulbaga said. She noted that many faculty members, herself included, put significant research into their syllabi during academic breaks and often have to adjust class topics or units to fit students’ knowledge levels and needs.
“The syllabus is a living document,” Kulbaga said. “It shouldn’t be something that is fixed.”
Provisions of the bill bar teaching on concepts that, among other things, include the belief that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another” and that someone “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” or any form of “psychological distress” because of their race or sex. Cirino emphasized that he’s not trying to dictate curricula but rather ensure students are accessing high-quality education.
“This bill is all about the students,” Cirino said.
Students and faculty across the state, Cirino said, have reached out to him to say they disagreed with their university’s diversity training or class subject material but feared retribution if they voiced their concerns.
“In a true academic environment, in diversity of thought, there would be no fear,” Cirino said.
To that end, SB83 requires student evaluations of professors to include a question of whether the instructor created a classroom “free of political, racial, gender and religious bias.” It also requires universities to list each instructor’s average student evaluation rating online.
Most portions of the bill amount to “state surveillance of curricula,” said Pranav Jani, director of Asian American Studies at Ohio State University and president of Ohio State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Ethnic and gender studies programs across the country, including at Ohio State, arose out of student and faculty protests, Jani said, and he views SB83 as part of conservative push-back against those programs and social progress for minority communities.
For Jani and Kulbaga, the stakes are high: Their academic careers are based on ethnic and gender studies, respectively, the kind of topics centered on concepts of social justice, allyship, systemic racism and other things deemed prohibited “specified concepts” under SB83. Both professors consider other aspects of the bill to be designed to intimidate, including the establishment of post-tenure review of faculty and blocking faculty from striking during contract negotiations.
“Whether or not each element of this bill is implemented, it creates a climate of fear,” Jani said. “It comes off as very powerful – ‘Look, we can impact each area of your work.’”
The bill requires colleges and universities to affirm in writing that they will not “endorse, oppose, comment, or take action” on “public policy controversies of the day, or any other ideology,” unless it is to support U.S. military action against another country or otherwise support the nation and Ohio. Although most of the specifics apply to public education, the bill requires private institutions receiving state funds to submit a statement declaring they don’t require diversity training, are committed to intellectual freedom and comply with the syllabus requirements.
Cirino pointed to federal regulations barring discrimination on the basis of gender or race, such as Title IX and Title VI, as proof that institutions have meaningfully moved toward equality. He said in some aspects, the push in institutions of higher education to emphasize diversity has “taken some of this backward.”
But Jani said the bill is couched in “double-speak” about freedom of expression – it purports to uplift academic freedom while cracking down on instructors’ ability to develop their courses, engage in research and advocate for fair contracts. It also assumes, he said, that the groups with most societal power — namely white, straight, cisgender people — are facing discrimination or otherwise being oppressed.
“They talk in the language of equity and restoring equality in the classroom, but that itself is based on the notion that white men are being attacked, in society, in culture as a whole, in all these universities,” Jani said.
SB83 will have its first hearing Wednesday.