Mar 20, 2023 - Politics

Ohio Senate Bill 83 targets college culture

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Statehouse Republicans are proposing widespread changes to Ohio's higher education system that they say will better protect free speech on campus by, among other things, banning mandatory diversity training.

Why it matters: The effort to ward off perceived political bias in higher education is one of several recent attempts by GOP lawmakers to more closely shape public education's operations and curriculum.

Driving the news: Senate Bill 83, the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, would outlaw any employee at a public university from going on strike. It would also prohibit:

  • Mandated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) courses and training for both staff and students;
  • Academic relationships with Chinese universities;
  • Universities from commenting on any "public policy controversies of the day." The bill lists a single exception: Institutions may endorse the U.S. Congress when it establishes "a state of armed hostility against a foreign power."

Flashback: One example of a university publicly commenting on a potentially "controversial belief or policy:" Ohio State president Michael Drake's campus-wide letter in 2020 condemning institutional racism.

Of note: The bill primarily focuses on public universities, but some elements apply to private colleges that receive state dollars.

Meanwhile, SB83 also would also require:

  • Class syllabi and faculty evaluation scores to be publicly available online;
  • Students to complete a U.S. history or government course featuring a half-dozen mandatory readings, including the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

What they're saying: State Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), the bill's main sponsor, told reporters there are cases of ideological discrimination happening at Ohio campuses.

  • He declined to identify any examples to reporters, saying he wanted to keep them confidential, reports
  • The bill awaits committee hearings, where Cirino, other supporters and opponents will provide testimony.

The other side: The American Association of University Professors' Ohio chapter condemned the bill for seeking to micromanage universities on issues "rooted in the culture wars."

  • Education groups in Florida are similarly critical of a proposal that, like SB83, targets DEI activities and would subject professors to post-tenure reviews, Axios Tampa Bay reports.

What we're watching: Sweeping bills typically undergo major changes during the legislative process after members hear from constituents and interest groups.

  • The anti-strike provision is expected to face particular scrutiny from Ohio labor unions and education groups.
  • If GOP leadership gives SB83 the green light, which components will stay?

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