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Northeast Ohio higher ed professors and students worry about impact of Senate Bill 83

Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media

A bill being considered in Ohio’s Senate targeting diversity and inclusion efforts, workers’ strikes and alleged political bias at Ohio universities and colleges is causing serious concerns among northeast Ohio students and faculty.

Cleveland State University’s Faculty Senate last week approved a resolution opposing Senate Bill 83, arguing it would cause the university to violate accreditation standards and limit the freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.

The bill in its current form would do a variety of things at public universities and colleges, some of which are listed below:

  • Ban requirements for diversity and inclusion training for faculty, students and staff
  • Bar campus staff from going on strike
  • Cause the end of partnerships with Chinese institutions of learning
  • Establish an “intellectual diversity rubric” for approval of courses at colleges
  • Prevent universities from taking public positions on public policy controversies
  • Implement a post-tenure review process, and create a new student evaluation process for faculty that includes a question about if they create a learning environment “free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias.” That evaluation process would get significant weight in the post-tenure review process
  • Mandate students takes at least three credit hours of a class on American history and government
  • A stipulation that institutions must encourage students and staff to form their own conclusions about ‘controversial matters,’ while faculty and staff must not ‘inculcate any points of view’
  • A requirement that colleges could not provide any advantage to hires or admissions based on gender, sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion, or any other “advantage or disadvantage” based on those qualities

Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, the senator who introduced the bill, said during a hearing in March that the point of the bill is meant to ensure that there is a “diversity of thought” at Ohio colleges and universities.
James Marino, an associate professor of English and vice president of the Cleveland State University American Association of University Professors, said the bill is counterproductive to that purpose and shows how uninformed legislators are on what actually happens in classrooms.

“If you don’t trust history professors to decide what is taught in history class… maybe you don’t, but I guarantee you, letting politicians decide what gets taught in history class is going to be much worse,” he said.

Andrew Slifkin, president of the CSU American Association of University Professors, said there are many examples of “micromanagement” in the bill that are unnecessary. The bill’s prohibition of strikes was one of his biggest concerns, however.

"If there is no possibility of striking, then that really renders the negotiation process... makes it kind of useless," Slifkin said. "I think it's fair that if the two parties, management and union, are bargaining in good faith and and there's not a mutual agreement that can be found, I think it's reasonable that a strike would be a reasonable option.”

Slifkin said the bill, if passed in its current form, will likely make it harder to attract professors to come to Ohio.

George Dent, a professor emeritus of law at Case Western Reserve University, spoke in favor of Senate Bill 83 during a committee meeting in late March, arguing the legislation is a “badly needed” course correction for Ohio’s higher education institutions. He and other proponents spoke out about conservative speakers being shouted down and disinvited at universities across the country, and about conservative professors and students unable to speak their mind publicly for fear of backlash.

He quoted surveys of students on Ohio college campuses from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), suggesting some students thought they were in an “echo chamber,” threatened with worse grades and mistreatment in class if their opinions – on topics ranging from vaccine mandates to LGBTQ+ people - diverged from a professor’s. He mentioned one student who said his or her professor told the class he was there to educate, not to “engage in dialogue.”

“This is a common attitude among professors who see themselves as an elite,” he said. “The Illuminati, whose sacred duty is to convert students to woke-ism by persuasion, if possible, by intimidation, if necessary.”

While the proposed bill mostly addresses public universities and colleges in Ohio, private schools like Dent’s Case Western Reserve would be prevented from receiving state funds if they don’t comply with some aspects of it.

Students as well are raising concerns about the bill’s impact on campus life. Jocelyn Holtsberry, president of the College Democrats at Kent State University, said students for years have advocated for more cultural sensitivity and efforts to embrace diversity at colleges.

“To see a bill that wants to strip away that, it takes us back decades and it's going to reverse so much hard work,” she said.

Holtsberry did cede that students left-leaning ideologies in her classes seemed to be speaking up more often than others, but, she said one of her favorite faculty members at the school is a political science professor who is a Republican. She said she’s heard all kinds of different perspectives while attending Kent State.

Cleveland State University student Josie Mayle said the bill isn’t doing anything to address concerns students actually have, with many students she knows worried about college affordability and wanting more welcoming and safe environments at school for students of color and LGBTQ+ students.

“The whole, ‘we're trying to prevent bias in classrooms,’ that's totally just a blanket over a conservative agenda that they're trying to push,” Mayle said.

The CSU Faculty Senate noted that the agencies and commissions that accredit CSU programs require training on diversity, equity and inclusion, which would run afoul of Senate Bill 83.

Deb Smith, president of the Kent State chapter of American Association of University Professors, said she was concerned about multiple provisions of the bill, but specifically the limits in it on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and on allowing colleges to make statements about the issues of the day.

“The bill prohibits acknowledging the existence of climate change, acknowledging the existence of systemic racism and sexism that continues in our society,” she said.

The provision of Senate Bill 83 banning partnerships with Chinese-affiliated institutions could affect some northeast Ohio colleges and universities, but it's not clear exactly how. The Confucius Institute at the University of Akron, which provided intensive Chinese-language learning opportunities to K-12 students, was closed in 2022 due to changing U.S. regulations, and Kent State's Xi'an Summer Institute program is not planned for summer 2023 and hasn't been offered since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a spokesperson said.

Opponent testimony on Senate Bill 83 will be heard on Wednesday, April 19 at 4 p.m.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.