COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Hours after the House Higher Education Committee cut off opponent testimony against a bill overhauling state higher education, the Ohio Senate voted 21-10 Wednesday afternoon to approve its companion piece of legislation in the other chamber.

The Higher Education Enhancement Act – Senate Bill 83 in one chamber and House Bill 151 in the other – seeks to crack down on what its sponsors have said is the favoring of diversity, equity and inclusion over promoting debate and differing viewpoints in public institutions of higher education. It also takes aim at university employees’ right to strike and collectively bargain over performance reviews, post-tenure review and tenure approval policies.

“We in the legislature now have the opportunity to change the direction of higher ed, if we are willing to be courageous,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), said. “I fear if we don’t, we will go down a path of servitude to a woke agenda.”

With changes weakening some of the bill’s most controversial provisions, like the ban on Chinese research partnerships and some syllabus posting requirements, the substitute bill approved Wednesday expands upon others – including the implementation of post-tenure review and limiting of employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Sen. Kent Smith (D-Euclid) rose in opposition to the legislation, highlighting that 22 of 33 state senators graduated from Ohio universities, many of which have top-ranking programs.

“I believe this is the worst assault on academic freedom that Ohio has ever seen,” Smith said. “This bill will short change our students, undermine our faculty and diminish our state’s position as a global leader in education.”

Weeks after opponents broke statehouse records by submitting more than 500 testimonies on SB83, no spoken testimony on the bill was permitted in the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee on Wednesday morning. The lawmakers approved committee Chair Cirino’s bill without much pomp and circumstance – while protesters sat in silence, wearing bright red shirts that read “Silence = Death to Higher Ed.”

The vote came a day after Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees publicly voiced its opposition to the bill, emphasizing that the changes and mandates would increase administrative bloat and pull resources away from student success.

“We acknowledge the issues raised by this proposal but believe there are alternative solutions that will not undermine the shared governance model of universities, risk weakened academic rigor, or impose extensive and expensive new reporting mandates,” the trustees’ announcement read.

Cirino pointed to Ohio State itself as an example of the importance of his bill, saying that since its introduction, Ohio State dropped mandatory DEI statements from most hiring practices and will update its campus free speech policy at its upcoming full board meeting.

“This bill isn’t even law yet, and it’s already served as an agent of change,” Cirino said.

After just over an hour of debate, three Republican senators broke ranks to vote against the bill: Sens. Louis Blessing of Colerain Township, Michele Reynolds of Canal Winchester, and Nathan Manning of North Ridgeville.

DEI training, ‘controversial beliefs,’ segregation

The original version banned universities from mandating DEI training for students, faculty and staff. The substitute bill similarly prohibits mandatory DEI training unless colleges and universities seek prior approval from the state Chancellor of Higher Education. 

To be approved, the college or university must show the DEI program is required in order to comply with state and federal laws, professional licensure requirements, accreditation requirements or to secure or retain grants and cooperative agreements. The chancellor would have to approve all DEI programs that satisfy at least one of the requirements and submit a twice-yearly report of all DEI prohibition exemptions to the House and Senate committees.

Jorge Clavo Abbass, a doctorate student in linguistics and president of the Ohio State Council of Graduate Students, testified against the House version on Wednesday that all versions of the bill remind him of the attacks on educational freedom in Venezuela under the reign of Hugo Chávez — whose rule his parents fled when he was a baby.

“In this country, we often think of thought policing as an exclusively leftist strategy,
but asphyxiating oversight of universities and the erosion of their autonomy are strategies
that have been deployed historically by extremists on the left and right alike,” Clavo Abbass said.

The substitute bill reaffirms original language blocking institutions from endorsing or opposing “controversial beliefs,” although the new version removes language banning universities from commenting on “public policy controversies of the day.” The exemption to declare support for a U.S. declaration of war remains in the bill.

After significant pushback from faculty, staff and students – and the larger academic community –  the substitute bill seeks to clarify the extent to which instructors can teach or talk about “controversial beliefs.”

“Nothing in this section prohibits faculty or students from classroom instruction, discussion, or debate, so long as the faculty remains committed to expressing intellectual diversity and allowing intellectual diversity to be expressed,” the added language read.

Instead, the substitute bill delineates that instructors must welcome disagreements about political or social policies and ensure that students feel empowered to express opposing viewpoints. The substitute bill made small changes to language criticized as too vague, including striking the phrase “matters of social and political importance” from a section on what universities must require in their mission statements. 

All versions of the bill require colleges and universities to establish grievance procedures for people who feel their right to expression has been violated — and to implement sanctions against violators, whether they be a professor, staff member or student.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) told NBC4 that higher education in Ohio has created a “class of single-minded individuals,” something he said this bill aims to correct.

“You don’t create a welcoming atmosphere, you get fewer people to participate. That is exactly what’s happened in higher education,” Huffman said.

After opponents pointed out that the original version of the bill banning the advantaging, disadvantaging or segregation on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and gender, as broadly written, would block same-sex dormitories and call into question fraternities, sororities and minority-focused organizations, the new version removed the word “segregation.” The changes limit the outlaw of segregation on those identities in classroom settings and formal orientation and graduation ceremonies.

Elsewhere, the new bill replaces “climate change” with “climate policies” in its list of what is considered controversial beliefs and removes mentions of opinions on “social policy” in faculty hiring decisions.

Still, the bill’s critics argue the legislation will do the opposite of what its sponsors intend. Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said the bill will chill freedom of speech on college campuses, especially the free speech of faculty. Referring to Cirino’s mentions of “woke ideology” indoctrinating college students across the state, Antonio wondered aloud whether the bill, written mostly to be neutral, will indoctrinate students in another way.

“It sounds to me like culture wars have come to not only the Senate, but also our discussions about colleges and universities, and it seems like 83 would impose a specific ideology onto our colleges and universities,” Antonio said.

Post-tenure review and collective bargaining

Although opponents of the bill have argued that the implementation of post-tenure review is itself an attack on the intellectual freedom of faculty, the substitute bill adds language further enabling universities to punish faculty who violate ideological diversity policy. 

Both versions require institutions to develop post-tenure review policies, with the substitute bill granting state institutions the authority to censure, fire or otherwise discipline all faculty, regardless of tenure status. The new version also requires institutions’ boards of trustees to submit policies on tenure and retrenchment to the Chancellor of Higher Education – policies that must be updated every five years.

In addition to maintaining the ban on faculty strikes, the new version of the bill prohibits any form of collective bargaining with regard to faculty performance evaluation systems and tenure and post-tenure review policies.

Stephen Mockabee, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and member of the Ohio American Association of University Professors, testified before the House committee that limitations on faculty strikes and collective bargaining amount to the “worst attack on union rights” in over a decade.

“In a bill that purports to promote the free expression of all ideas, these provisions attempt to silence the voices of campus workers, especially faculty,” Mockabee said. “As we have noted in previous testimony, it is the faculty holding minority viewpoints who are the most in need of the due process protections that are guaranteed by collective bargaining agreements.”

When asked by Rep. Munira Abdullahi the importance of collective bargaining for faculty, he said it represents the faculty voice — which also serves students’ needs.

“It would affect all campus workers, and again, that tips the scales overwhelmingly to the side of management, Hockabee said. “Unions need the leverage that is provided by the opportunity to strike to maintain a reasonable balance of power.”

Syllabus requirements, intellectual diversity rubrics

The original version of the Higher Education Enhancement Act came under fire for its syllabus requirements, which professors across the state called an intimidation tactic and “state surveillance of curricula.” 

The first version mandated that every course syllabus be posted on a university website with a detailed description of readings, course topics and instructors’ “biographical information.” The revised bill instead mandates syllabi include a calendar of materials and topics and the instructor’s “professional qualifications.” In both versions, a full reading list must be included, but the substitute bill allows professors to post their syllabi on their university web pages by the first day of class.

Courses through the College Credit Plus program taught by high school teachers in a secondary school are exempt from the syllabus requirement.

Cirino’s first draft of the bill required universities to establish “intellectual diversity rubrics” for course curricula, student course evaluations, annual reviews, general education requirements and student learning outcomes. Although universities under the new version must “demonstrate intellectual diversity” in those areas, there is no rubric requirement.

Chinese research partnerships

Originally, the Higher Education Enhancement Act barred colleges and universities from renewing or entering into new academic partnerships with any foreign institution associated with China. The amended bill limits the scope of research partnership bans to only institutions located in China.

Similar to the DEI training requirement, the substitute bill allows for partnerships with Chinese research institutions so long as the Chancellor of Higher Education and Attorney General approve them. To be approved, the state institution must demonstrate its commitment to avoiding conflicts of interest, developing foreign visitor processes and protecting the institution’s intellectual property and national security interests.

Cirino’s first bill also barred colleges and universities from accepting gifts, donations, and contributions from China or anyone who may be acting on behalf of China, including students. Instead, the substitute bill outlaws such contributions from China or someone reasonably suspected to be working on behalf of China.

The new version also includes a provision that clarifies that the bill does not bar colleges and universities from accepting tuition payments from Chinese students.