Watch a previous report on the Higher Education Enhancement Act in the video player above.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Sen. Jerry Cirino is determined to get his omnibus higher education bill to become law – no matter how many times he needs to change it.
The Republican lawmaker from Kirtland has produced 11 versions of Senate Bill 83, the “Higher Education Enhancement Act,” since introducing it in March. Its most recent iteration, introduced Wednesday in the House Higher Education committee, eliminates one of the most controversial aspects of the legislation that Cirino said he was hesitant to remove.
The latest version of SB83 eliminates the ban on faculty strikes while maintaining other restrictions on collective bargaining – including a prohibition on such bargaining regarding faculty workload, post-tenure review and retrenchment policies. With modifications granting universities more flexibility in determining how the law’s requirements will be implemented, Cirino said he thinks the bill exemplifies his original intent: to promote intellectual diversity and freedom of speech at Ohio’s public universities.
“I’m comfortable that this bill is where it needs to be and it’s the right bill for us to pass,” Cirino said Wednesday.
Cirino introduced SB83 to combat what he said was the prioritization of diversity and inclusion on college campuses at the expense of diversity of opinion. To that end, many components of the bill remain mostly unchanged, including student evaluations of faculty’s commitment to promoting diversity of opinion. Instead of accounting for half of a professor’s annual review, however, student evaluations would count for 25%.
Universities must also publish a statement asserting their commitment to promoting free speech and ideological diversity, but instead of adding it to the mission statement – which Cirino noted many university trustees found a burdensome task – universities can write a “statement of commitment” to SB83’s principles.
A prohibition on mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training remains, with caveats that if such training is required to comply with federal and state laws, accreditation requirements or is necessary to secure grant funding, universities can implement it. Instead of seeking preemptive approval from the chancellor of higher education, universities would only have to notify the chancellor of any such mandatory training and what exceptions apply.
“We don’t want to disadvantage Ohio’s universities,” Cirino said. “As much as I don’t like having strings attached by the federal government, we all know how that works.”
SB83 includes more flexibility for universities in other ways, including the freedom to establish an American civics course that complies with the law, as opposed to a course prescribed by the chancellor of higher education. Universities can also establish ways to test out of the course – but Cirino emphasized that having the American civics course is a non-negotiable requirement.
He also asserted that his goal with requiring the civics course is not to promote a slanted view of history but rather to address what he sees as a glaring lack of knowledge among youth about the history of the United States.
“We do want to push and assure a little bit better exposure to American civics – the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is not pushing a particular narrative, this is pushing what is our history,” he said.
Although Cirino’s substitute bill is meant to be a compromise, Democrats on the Higher Education committee remained concerned about the potential chilling effects of the legislation.
Ranking member on the committee Rep. Joe Miller (Lorain) criticized the broad definition of retrenchment – or the restructuring of university academics, including through eliminating faculty positions and departments, in response to financial concerns, lower student enrollment or other emergencies.
Faculty with 30-35 years of experience would be able to bargain on retrenchment, but with the broad definition, he said he worried that trustees may use the concept as an excuse to target other faculty for firing. Despite a new appeals process established for post-tenure reviews and annual performance evaluations, Miller found the prohibitions on collective bargaining too restrictive.
Cirino pointed out that two of Ohio’s largest universities – Ohio State and Ohio universities – do not have faculty unions, and the trustees maintain total control over retrenchment policies. If trustees were abusing their discretion, he said, there would be complaints about it.
Miller didn’t find that argument compelling.
“You don’t write legislation based on the people that are currently in there, you write legislation for guardrails to make sure that we protect certain groups of people,” Miller said. “This current version of the legislation would take away rights from faculty to collectively bargain this issue.”
Other lawmakers were concerned about a ban on the use of “ideological litmus tests” when considering candidates for faculty and staff positions. Cirino included the requirement to counteract what he said was compelled speech – requiring prospective faculty to declare allegiance to a particular viewpoint or ideology – but some on the committee wondered whether the requirement would prevent universities from weeding out candidates with dangerous beliefs that may put students and staff in danger.
“Given the limits of this legislation, if universities wanted to suss out whether a professor holds white supremacist views before they decide to hire them, what should they do to figure that out within the limits of this legislation?” asked Rep. Dani Isaacsohn (D-Cincinnati).
Cirino maintained that the bill would not preclude universities from making such a determination, although there is no explicit carve out in the legislation for rooting out dangerous beliefs and prejudice.
“The bill just doesn’t address that,” he said.
If the House passes SB83, it will return to the Senate in its newest form for another vote.