Ohio Senate Bill 83 seeks to curtail university diversity efforts and ban university employees from striking

Addison Foreman, Reporter

Ohio Senate Bill 83, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, seeks to ban required diversity training in public universities, have universities take a more neutral stance on social issues and ban public university employees from striking.

Introduced by Ohio Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), this bill has received backlash from university employees and unions.

“This bill is first and foremost about the students,” Cirino said. “We owe it to our students to make sure that we help them get into college or whatever post-secondary they do, to make sure it’s affordable, to make sure that we’re teaching them how to think, not what to think. That’s really the motivation behind this bill.”

Part of the bill deals with requiring schools to “allow and encourage learners to make their own conclusions” about matters that are deemed controversial. This would restrict universities from taking stances on social issues.

“The mere fact that something is politically controversial does not mean that it is all controversial to the relevant scientific experts who actually studied stuff. I think the same thing could be said of theories around systematic racism and sexism as well,” Deborah Smith, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at Kent State University, said.

As an example, Smith addressed the topic of climate change being discussed in class.

“There is for sure a political controversy about whether climate change exists. There is no controversy among earth scientists about whether climate change exists,” Smith said. “At a university, they should be able to go with the science. They shouldn’t be held hostage to the fact that this particular scientific theory that is supported by empirical evidence somehow got caught up in the culture wars.”

Cirino believes that it is the university faculty’s job to not take a side on certain issues so that students can think freely without feeling their views are being constrained.

“What we’re talking about here is making sure that our faculty, who we need desperately to deliver good instruction, that they are doing what we expect them to do as a state institution. And that is, teach students to think for themselves, to feel free to voice their opinions on issues and not to make any student feel that their beliefs should be constrained, or made fun of, or restricted in any way,” Cirino said.

Smith said this idea would, in some cases, keep professors from speaking freely from an expert point of view.

“There really isn’t any way to legislate value for diversity of viewpoints, what they call intellectual diversity in the bill, that doesn’t have implications for academic freedom and what experts can do in their expert judgment in the classroom,” Smith said. “When our faculty experts can’t be allowed to actually bring their expertise to the classroom, it’s the students that suffer.”

Smith said that in conversations she’s had with Cirino, he believes, based on anecdotal evidence, that viewpoints of young conservatives are being stifled or discriminated against at universities.

“We’ve had lots of instances of these reports going on,” Cirino said. “Where students don’t feel free to express themselves, for fear that they might get a low grade on a paper or might get a low grade for the course. That’s ridiculous. No campus should have that kind of environment.”

Another section of Senate Bill 83 would ban public university employees from going on strike.

“We’re concerned about anything that could impact our collective bargaining rights, and the right to strike is a very fundamental right that in some ways undergirds all the other bargaining rights. It’s the credible threat of a strike, or in some cases the actual reality of a strike that give the union leverage,” Smith said.

Cirino disagrees with this sentiment, saying that a strike should not be able to interfere with students’ education.

“Why should your instruction be used as a pawn in a negotiating process for a union to get a better dental plan or another holiday? Go ahead and negotiate all those things if you want to, but don’t use the threat of a strike or an actual strike to deprive you, the students, with instruction you’ve paid for,” Cirino said. “I really wish that faculty would remind themselves that I’m not anti-union, I’m anti messing with the students and what they deserve to get for the money they pay.”

The future of Senate Bill 83 is still unknown. There will be several weeks of hearings, where people can express either support or opposition for the bill. If the bill passes the hearings, it will then be taken to the Senate floor.

Teachers’ unions in Ohio, including AAUP, will be heavily lobbying against this bill, to either get it altered or not passed at all.

“Far from enhancing Ohio higher education, the impact of this bill would only be to degrade higher education in Ohio,” Smith said.

Addison Foreman is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].