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The Ohio Senate passed a far-reaching state higher education bill Wednesday despite widespread opposition, including from Ohio State University’s trustee board and a free speech advocacy group. 

The bill, approved on a 21-10 vote, would largely ban diversity, equity and inclusion training efforts at public colleges, bar institutions from taking positions on “controversial” topics and establish post-tenure reviews.

In a public statement, the Ohio State board said Tuesday that the bill threatens to impair academic rigor and limit dialogue in the classroom by pushing faculty to avoid challenging topics. 

Criticism has been mounting against the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, which Republican state Sen. Jerry Cirino introduced in March. A companion bill has been introduced in the House. 

Ohio is far from the only state using legislation to target academic DEI and tenure. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a law that will ban all DEI initiatives at Florida public colleges beginning July 1. And the State University System of Florida’s board approved in March a post-tenure review policy at its institutions.

Similarly, Texas bills that would mostly end DEI programs and require performance reviews are making their way through the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, also denounced the Ohio bill Tuesday as containing “the most draconian and censorious restrictions” faced by public colleges.

Jeremy Young, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn program, called the bill the “most complicated educational gag order ever proposed.” PEN America tracks state bills that would restrict topics colleges can teach and found such legislation rose year over year in 2022. The bills have stemmed almost entirely from Republicans, according to the group. 

The Ohio bill “contains a rogue’s gallery of censorship aimed at faculty, administrators, and — for the first time in an educational gag order — explicitly at students,” Young said in a statement. “And it represents an extraordinary and unnecessary level of micromanagement of a university’s affairs.”

Under the bill, students, along with employees, would be sanctioned for interfering with intellectual diversity rights.

“An urgent course correction”

The proposal, SB 83, would have sweeping ramifications for public higher education in Ohio. Aiming to promote “intellectual diversity” on campuses, the bill would prohibit almost all mandatory DEI programs and training, ban higher ed employees from striking, and mandate a yearly performance review for faculty, including those with tenure.

It would also require the syllabus for every undergraduate class to be made publicly available and create a mandatory U.S. history course with certain prescribed readings, like the Constitution and at least five essays from the Federalist Papers. 

When Cirino introduced the bill, he called it “an urgent course correction to protect Ohio students and the integrity of our universities and colleges.”

“This course correction is needed now so that we do not end up with institutions that are more focused on social engineering rather than true intellectual diversity of thought and the teaching of useful analytical skills,” he testified in March to the state Senate’s Workforce and Higher Education Committee, which he chairs.

But university and academic governance experts have pushed back, saying the dramatic restrictions would weaken higher education in the state.

“Limiting challenging classroom dialogue will diminish the rigor of teaching when, to the contrary, the university should strive to appoint faculty who challenge students to think deeply and analytically,” the Ohio State trustees said. 

Trustees also raised concerns over broad language in the bill mandating that all people be treated equally, which they said could theoretically ban financial aid programs designed to help first-generation and low-income students.

Dozens of people testified against the bill during a Wednesday hearing, with some in the audience wearing duct tape over their mouths and shirts that read “Silence = Death to Higher Ed.”

Deborah Smith, Kent State University professor and president of its American Association of University Professors chapter, expressed concerns over the limitations the legislation would put on collective bargaining.

The bill would “radically undermine” unionized faculty’s right to collectively bargain and ban them from striking, she said in written testimony. 

Kent State faculty have never declared a strike, but the AAUP chapter’s tenured and tenure-track bargaining unit came very close in 2015, according to Smith.

“In the absence of the right to strike, there would have been nothing to compel the University to accept the fact-finder’s suggestions for reasonable compromise rather than to simply impose its last, best, final offer on Kent State’s tenured and tenure-track faculty,” she wrote.

Other higher ed efforts in the Ohio legislature

Meanwhile, a separate bill, SB 117, introduced by Cirino and Rob McColley, another prominent Republican state senator, has received a different reception from university leaders. 

This bill, also meant to enhance “intellectual diversity” on campuses, would fund two university civics centers, sending $10 million over the next two years to Ohio State to establish the Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society. 

The university’s board, in their statement Tuesday, said it looks forward to working with Cirino and McColley to “provide an even better platform” for education on the tenets of American democracy. 

The proposed Chase Center’s seven-person leadership board would include “scholars with relevant expertise and experience,” with the bill stipulating that only one could be a university employee.