Diacon addresses SB 83, stresses diversity commitment in ‘Talking with Todd’ session

Leah Shepard, Reporter

President Todd Diacon discussed Senate Bill 83 and its possible effects on the university with faculty and staff Monday afternoon in this month’s “Talking with Todd” session. 

Diacon explained his understanding of the bill as it relates to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, faculty striking and universities’ state budget. The session comes after Diacon spent more than 12 hours of “face to face meetings” with sponsors of the bill in Columbus. 

Senate Bill 83, or the “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act,” was introduced in the Ohio state legislature and will ban mandatory diversity trainings, limit teachings on controversial topics and prohibit employees from striking in public universities. 

Diacon said the bill is an “unusually large” piece of legislation, with multiple policy changes packed into it.  

He urged the “work” the university does to make Kent State more inclusive and welcoming will continue, despite whether the bill passes. 

“I am troubled by what I think are especially unclear passages in the bill,” Diacon said. “I have a great concern about the language and the complexity of the bill and its unintended consequences. The exact form of the work may change with legislation passed in Ohio, but there’s nothing in that legislation that moves us away from staying true to who we are as an institution.”

Diacon referenced Kent State’s “core values” in the beginning of the meeting, stating the university is not just for the fortunate few, but the “meritorious many.” 

“We have a long history and commitment to being an evermore diverse university in terms of enrollment and employment,” he said.“That commitment to access and diversity is not just talk.”

He cited the “Flashes Go Further” program as an example of this. Diacon said 23% of incoming freshmen are a part of this scholarship program, which provides financial aid to students with the highest levels of financial need. 

Diacon, who said he spent the last six weeks in Columbus talking with sponsors of the bill, said he and other public university presidents have been working “behind the scenes” to alter and clarify concerning language in the bill. He said he believes they were successful, but they will not know until an amended bill is introduced, which will likely be in mid-May. 

Diacon said it is not a question of if SB 83 will pass but when, as the Ohio legislature is veto-proof. 

“The republicans now hold enough seats in both houses of the legislature that they can pass any bill they want over any governor’s veto,” he said. “So as a result, I feel like the political process has changed and I feel there’s nearly a 100% chance this bill will pass. So the question now isn’t ‘when will the bill pass,’ it’s ‘in what form will it pass?’”

Diacon added the bill isn’t the only piece of similar legislation proposed in the country at this time. He said the nation is likely weeks away from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case that will bar the consideration of race in college admissions, effectively banning affirmative action. 

Diacon said the “political moment” the nation and state is experiencing drives SB-83. 

He said, from his conversations with sponsors of the bill, that two major concerns drive the bill, one being the belief conservative students enrolled in public universities consistently experience harassment and discrimination on campus because of their beliefs.

Diacon said these claims are based on purely “anecdotal evidence” – evidence he said has no factual basis.

The second major concern, Diacon said, is the idea that because the university is supported by taxpayers, it should issue no official statements siding one way or another with current controversies. 

Diacon spoke to faculty about the contents of the bill, echoing American Association of University Professors at Kent State President Deb Smith’s sentiments, with concerns about “specified concepts.” He said during his meetings with lawmakers, he tried to have this section, which uses vague language on what a “specified concept” is, removed from the bill “to no avail.”

He said due to this legislation, Kent State may lose faculty.

“We have been adamant that this is a major problem with the legislation,” Diacon said. “We operate nationally. Our competition for talent is national. This kind of legislation and laws hurt us and can make us less competitive, particularly when either good people don’t come here because of that, or good people leave.”

Diacon also commented on higher education funding currently in the legislature. He said the funding plan proposed by DeWine is the “most generous” plan proposed by a governor in the eleven years he has lived in Ohio. 

DeWine’s proposed budget would give Kent State University $12.4 million in the first year and $20-21 million in the second year in funding.

“Just for some context, our expenditures will increase by $16 million at Kent State,” he said. “That’s a 2.5% increase. However, last week, the House passed a dramatically reduced higher education budget.”

The new budget, he said, would give Kent State $2.2 million in the first year and $4.4 million in the second. 

“We’re working hard in the Senate to restore the governor’s budget proposal for higher education,” he said. 

Diacon assured faculty and staff the bill would not affect student organizations, tenure or how courses are taught.

“No matter what,” Diacon said, “we’re going to keep being an institution of access. We are going to remain an institution that’s committed to diversity. How that work gets done may change, but we are absolutely committed to that.”

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