Union President Deb Smith responds to Senate Bill 83

Leah Shepard, Staff Reporter

Senate Bill 83 may cause university faculty to leave the state for employment in addition to banning Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging and striking for university employees, said Deb Smith, President of the Kent State Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP-KSU), after a faculty forum Thursday.

The AAUP-KSU-sponsored forum was held Thursday night, where over 80 Kent State University staff voiced their concerns and questions regarding the bill.

Smith, a philosophy professor and member of the union for 26 years, said that nearly all aspects of the bill are “highly problematic,” but what she is most concerned about is that of academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is the freedom of a disciplinary expert to determine what content to present within their disciplinary expertise and how best to present it,” Smith said. “It exists precisely to protect faculty that teach academic content in areas that are seen as controversial.”

She said that though the bill seems to target what universities as institutions can endorse rather than what individual faculty can teach, it is difficult to differentiate between the two. Smith said that the wording of the bill is one reason for this.

“It has certain specific language that makes it seem very very likely that a faculty member could be found in violation of the bill for teaching things that we currently teach,” she said.

Smith also referenced a part of the bill that makes professors’ syllabi and emails public information, accessible to everyone. She said that whereas before, complaints against professors’ class content could only be filed by students, now anyone could allege that the university is violating the bill.

She said this is another aspect of the bill that attacks academic freedom.

The language that the bill uses to define subjects it finds problematic is “specified concepts,” Smith said. She said these “specified concepts” have no real definition – only examples, which range from diversity to sustainability.

“How are we supposed to know we’re even in violation of the law?” Smith said. “We have no sense of what the range of a ‘specified concept’ is.”

She said this will have broad legal implications for the universities as well, as they wouldn’t be able to comment on, endorse, or oppose any statements on “specified concepts,” and if they did, they could be subject to legal consequences.

Smith said she sees other consequences of this bill as well, including the stop of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging initiatives as well as additional administrative expenses for universities.

“Either the state legislature is going to have to help universities cover those costs by allowing them to raise tuition, which is not good for students,” she said. “Or they will have to cut other expenses in a way that will hurt students.”

Smith said she predicts another long-term effect of the bill will be a mass exodus of professors from the state.

“It’s going to be harder to attract and maintain the world-class faculty that Kent State has right now,” Smith said of KSU in particular. “So, the quality of education is going to diminish in that way.”

Smith, who will testify before the Ohio State Legislature Wednesday in opposition of the bill, says she encourages all students, faculty and citizens who are concerned about the bill to voice them.

She said she encourages concerned individuals to read the bill and contact the representatives who sponsor it with their concerns. The contact information for all of the bill’s sponsors is public information on the SB-83 website.

Smith said rather than referencing the bill as a whole, those filing complaints should focus on one aspect of the bill to raise, as there is a 550 word limit to communicate the complaint. She encouraged students to sign petitions opposing the bill as well.

Leah Shepard is a staff reporter. Contact her at [email protected].