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The Ohio Legislature made headlines in May when its Senate passed a bill that would largely ban diversity, equity and inclusion training efforts at public colleges, bar institutions from taking positions on “controversial” topics and limit employee collective bargaining.

The bill, SB 83, is meant as “an urgent course correction to protect Ohio students and the integrity of our universities and colleges,”  Republican state Sen. Jerry Cirino said when he introduced it in March.

Cirino more recently told Higher Ed Dive that he believes faculty need to start thinking out of the box and be a little bit more flexible, especially since “they have not seen fit to reform themselves for many, many, many years.”

Ohio is the one of the latest examples of state lawmakers looking to more tightly control public higher education and make decisions traditionally left to institutions’ governing boards and faculty. The state’s legislation has faced widespread opposition from faculty groups and free speech advocates, who said it would chill free speech and hurt student and employee recruiting and retention if enacted.

Cirino contends that lawmakers aren’t attempting to micromanage colleges. 

“There’s been almost no input on this legislation from people who are currently active on college campuses.”

Steve Mockabee

Government relations committee chair at Ohio AAUP

But Steve Mockabee, government relations committee chair for the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said lawmakers haven’t engaged with key actors in higher education, and are instead convinced change can only come from the outside.

“One thing that’s extremely disappointing is the lack of conversations that Sen. Cirino and his allies have been willing to engage in with faculty, staff and students,” Mockabee said. “There’s been almost no input on this legislation from people who are currently active on college campuses.”

The Ohio House’s higher education committee ran out of time to advance the bill before lawmakers left for the summer. With the state’s Legislature back in session this month, lawmakers will weigh the bill with a few rollbacks and softened language, though higher education groups still widely oppose the measure.

What DEI restrictions does the bill include?

Under SB 83’s original language, Ohio public colleges could offer optional DEI trainings but could not require them for employment or promotion. 

However, a number of research grants, including from the federal government and independent organizations, require applications to include DEI statements — which explain a candidate’s experiences with and commitment to diverse groups. Ohio State University’s trustee board flagged this as a potential obstacle for students and faculty back in May.

Under the bill’s new version, colleges can receive exemption and require DEI work in these instances. The revised bill would mandate that those claiming an exemption must note that with the Ohio chancellor of higher education’s office.

“I don’t want to put Ohio’s universities at a disadvantage. So we’ve made a provision to allow those when they’re completely justified,” Cirino said.

Ohio is far from the only state legislating DEI in academia. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in May signed a law banning all DEI spending at the state’s public colleges. Texas followed suit with a similar DEI ban shortly afterward. 

“For decades, Ohio has seemed to follow in the footsteps of Florida,” said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “I always ask, why? Why do we want to see Florida here?”

Does it limit free speech? 

An unchanged part of the Ohio bill would create a required U.S. history course that includes prescribed readings, like the Constitution and at least five essays from the Federalist Papers. 

“Unless someone is a history major, or maybe a poli-sci major, our students are graduating with very, very little knowledge of the history and the basics of our system of government in this country,” Cirino said. “We need to do a better job of making sure our students get exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The bill also bars institutions from taking positions on so-called controversial topics, such as climate change, immigration policy or abortion. That section particularly concerned the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech watchdog.

“We want faculty to be able to speak their mind in class,” said John Coleman, legislative counsel for FIRE. “It’s very difficult to avoid teaching from the teachers’ personal views in higher education. We will certainly see, if enacted, a chilling effect on faculty.”

FIRE called the bill’s language unconstitutional, saying it is “both vague and would restrict particular points of view.”

Last November, a federal judge temporarily blocked similar legislation in Florida following a lawsuit from FIRE. The law, known as the Stop WOKE Act, would have prevented public colleges promoting concepts conservative legislators have deemed alienating.

“We have our arguments ready to go because it’s no longer novel language,” Coleman said.

How would it affect employees? 

One of the biggest changes to the proposal involves who has the right to strike. The original version of the bill would prohibit all public college employees from striking. Lawmakers are considering revising the language to only include faculty.

“My main concern is keeping the universities open. It’s the faculty that really are the ones who can completely interrupt the delivery of instruction.”

Sen. Jerry Cirino

Ohio state Senator and author of SB 83

Cirino said he’s not anti-union, pointing to the changed strike language as proof. He argues the negotiation process has plenty of room for give and take — even without faculty having the right to either threaten to or go on strike.

“My main concern is keeping the universities open,” he said. “It’s the faculty that really are the ones who can completely interrupt the delivery of instruction.”

When students pay tuition at the beginning of the term, they enter into a contract with their institution, Cirino said.

“Nothing should interrupt that contract from being fulfilled,” he said. “Certainly not because some faculty members want a better dental plan or more days off or more time on their sabbatical.”

In Ohio, a couple of universities saw labor movements in the past few years, including Wright State University. Faculty there went on strike for roughly three weeks in 2019 over healthcare and pay disagreements.

Faculty groups and labor organizations have said the possible change won’t sway the opinion of unions, which have vehemently opposed the bill.

“It’s an example of trying to divide and conquer,” said Mockabee, who is also a professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Our allies in labor are united that this is a bad bill.”

Cropper, of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, agreed. OFT represents more than 20,000 employees in K-12, higher education and public services.

“An attack on one is an attack on all,” Cropper said. “I firmly expect the broad labor community to still stand in opposition to this bill.”

Will there be post-tenure reviews? 

Remaining in the Ohio bill is a provision mandating annual performance reviews for faculty, including those with tenure. Post-tenure review procedures are gaining momentum across the country, including in Florida, where the state’s university system approved such a policy in March.

Mockabee pointed to Florida’s measure as an example of legislators misunderstanding academic oversight and shared governance.

“For instance, they assume that faculty performance is not reviewed, and once we make tenure, we can just do whatever the heck we want,” he said. “That’s completely false.”

“I’ve been reviewed every single year I’ve been employed at the University of Cincinnati,” Mockabee said, noting it’s required as part of his union contract. “So ironically, Sen. Cirino wants to take away my collective bargaining rights when I have collectively bargained for a policy that mandates that I be reviewed, which he claims is what he wants to see.”

Will it pass?  

Prior to lawmakers returning this month, Cirino expressed confidence the bill would pass the Legislature.

Both Ohio’s Senate and House have a Republican supermajority, giving the bill a clear path to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk if lawmakers vote down party lines.

But Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, didn’t share Cirino’s sentiment.

“It is far from certain that Senate Bill 83, in its current form or even in a revised form, is a slam dunk in the House,” he said. “We have allies on both sides of the aisle, who are committed to protecting collective bargaining rights and are committed to protecting the integrity of our higher education system.”

While Cropper said she would not be surprised if the bill made it through the House, she added that the Ohio Federation of Teachers is dedicated to fighting it every step along the way.

Educators are more likely to leave the profession, or the state entirely, when they feel they’re not respected as professionals and their autonomy is being taken away, Cropper said. 

Meanwhile, Mockabee said Ohio faculty have already seen job candidates withdraw or turn down offers, even though the legislation has not yet advanced in the House.

An exodus of quality faculty would negatively affect how many students elect to attend college in Ohio, hurting statewide enrollment, Cropper said.

“We’re in a time when we’re having trouble in education — whether it’s at the K-12 level or the higher ed level — of attracting and retaining people into this profession,” she said. “Bills like this are one of the primary causes of that.”