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Opponents pack marathon hearing on bill to make huge changes in higher education in Ohio

Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
Opponents fill a hearing room for a committee meeting on Senate Bill 83, a bill that would make huge changes in higher education in Ohio.

Bills that would ban trans athletes in girls’ sports and gender transition treatments for minors, a measure that would create an August special election, a resolution to make it harder to amend the constitution and the state budget were on the agenda of state lawmakers this week.

In between all of that, members of an Ohio Senate committee got an earful from opponents of a bill that would make big changes in higher education, in a hearing that lasted more than seven hours.

Senate Bill 83 would ban universities from requiring diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, and would also prohibit them from doing public statements on controversial issues, boycotts, affirmative action practices and partnerships with China, with the goal of more diversity of thought and less bias. The bill, titled the "Higher Education Enhancement Act", would also ban the hiring of faculty based on "ideological litmus tests" and would prohibit faculty members from striking. Tenured faculty could have to go through performance reviews which could include student evaluations. Universities would have to submit a four-point statement when requested state funding that states the institution's commitment to intellectual diversity and free speech, that it doesn't require DEI training, and that course outlines or syllabi are published online.

The hearing started with three supporters of the bill, including Rep. Josh Williams (R-Oregon). He said he "witnessed the decline of open dialogue on college campuses firsthand" at the University of Toledo College of Law, when he said he was discriminated against for expressing the view that the US should not adopt an open border policy.

“There is a de facto censorship regime on college campuses now. This bill reverses these policies and opens new avenues for transparency and accountability," Williams said. "Senate Bill 83 addresses the issue fundamentally by requiring institutions of higher learning to reorient their values to support open intellectual inquiry."

Republicans have long complained that colleges and universities are promoting liberal ideologies and causes while suppressing conservative views, often with hostility and ridicule.

But nearly all of the more than 500 others who either spoke or submitted testimony were adamantly opposed to the sweeping changes and sometimes vague language in Senate Bill 83, with one referring to it as the "Higher Education Destruction Act".

"Intellectual diversity should not and in fact cannot come at the cost of academic freedom and critical thinking. For the state to restrict discussion on such a sweeping set of important topics is deeply unethical and harmful to our institutions and students," said Rachel Collyer, program director of the Ohio Student Association. “Who would want to get their education in a state where education is censored, where diversity, equity and inclusion are not valued and are in fact not mandated?”

Chemistry professor Adam Keller, the president of the union of Columbus State Community College faculty, worries about losing federal financial support.

“Parts of this bill really puts it in jeopardy as to whether some of the NSF funding we have and our granting sources and how we're using them is even legal,” Keller said. "Are we going to return billions of dollars that we have to specifically provide scholarships?"

Elizabeth Wardle is a distinguished professor of written communication at Miami University. She said the bill would cause institutions to lose accreditation and make higher education more expensive, because it would require more administrators to carry out its unfunded requirements.

“Higher education has a lot of problems, and every faculty member you talk to would say the same. It is too expensive. There are too many administrators, there is too much bureaucracy," Wardle said, and added, "SB 83 fixes none of these problems.”

Ohio State student Sam Klein was succinct: “This is crap. You want to amend the bill? Throw it out.”

Sen. Jerry Cirino is the bill’s primary sponsor and chairs this committee. He told the opponents that amendments on the bill are coming that would make some clarifications and eliminate “some unintended consequences”, but he said he couldn’t get into the specifics.

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