Commentary: Higher education in Ohio could be shipwrecked by Senate Bill 83
They've done it again.
These suburban and small town Republicans in the Ohio legislature can't help themselves.
They believe that because their seats in the Ohio Senate and House are in effect lifetime appointments, thanks to the worst kind of partisan gerrymandering, that they have an absolute right to control every aspect of life in Ohio.
Now, with the passage of Senate Bill 83, and a companion bill making its way through the House, they have pounced on Ohio's well-respected college and university system.
It has passed the Senate on a largely party-line vote. It will pass the House, and soon.
And Jerry Cirino, the Republican state senator from suburban Lake County, will likely pat himself on the back for having stemmed the tide of "liberal bias" in Ohio's colleges and universities.
Opponents of Cirino's bill — and there are many — call it an "over-reach" that would do "irreparable harm" to a fully functioning and well-respected system of higher education in Ohio.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP Ohio) told me early on in the debate over Senate Bill 83. "I really don't know why the senator is trying to pick this fight."
The hard-right conservatives in the legislature have made a habit of picking these fights. They will set up a straw man — like "liberal bias" in higher education — and proceed to knock it down. At which point they thump their chests and declare victory over threats that exist mostly in their own minds.
Should there be room for free thought in colleges and universities? Of course. Should students be discriminated against because they have conservative beliefs? Of course not.
That doesn't mean, however, Ohio should turn over higher education instruction to a bunch of mainly white male politicians in the Statehouse.
What exactly is Senate Bill 83 about?
Here are some of the things Senate Bill 83 would ban:
- most diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) training for students and faculty.
- strikes by employees, including the faculty.
- "bias" in classrooms, with no hint of what the state would consider "bias."
- forbidding programs that partnered with the People's Republic of China, "our enemy."
Here's what the bill would require:
- That every student take an American history course, with a syllabus set out in the bill — that's right, politicians writing curriculum.
- Public syllabuses and teacher information online.
- Professors would face tenure evaluations based on if the educator showed bias or taught with bias — including student evaluations. So one disgruntled student could threaten a faculty member's career?
- That educators teach so students can reach their "own conclusions." Goes without saying. That happens every single day in every college course, regardless of subject.
"Unfortunately, when the sponsor of this bill claims to uphold and protect freedom of speech, SB 83 does just the opposite," said State Sen. Catherine Ingram (D-Cincinnati), the only member of Cirino's Workforce and Education Committee to oppose voting it out of committee.
"I continue to hear the sentiment that 'conservatives need a voice,' but the reality is Ohio has been gerrymandered so horribly they can't help but have a voice," Ingram said.
But the worst part of all in Senate Bill 83 is the blow it could cause to the state's economy.
Last week, Lightcast, an independent consulting firm, did a study for the Inter-University Council of Ohio showing that the state colleges and universities pumped nearly $69 billion into Ohio's economy in the last fiscal year — 8.8% of the gross state product.
Opponents fear this legislation will hammer Ohio both coming and going.
What incentive is there for outstanding professors to come to Ohio if they would have to work in a system that is controlled by politics, with Republican politicians constantly looking over their shoulders?
They would likely decide not to come here, especially from a state where how and what they teach is not dictated by politicians.
And what about out-of-state students who pay more money to take advantage of Ohio's solid university system? Will they still come if they are coming to a state where their professors will be working with one hand tied behind their backs?
That's real money. That's income for the higher education system.
And what about major corporations who might not consider Ohio as a place to locate if the college and universities that train their future employees are hamstrung by the politics of the moment?
Ohio GOP, welcome to the Law of Unintended Consequences.
That's a law that always wins.