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Republican senators propose changes at Ohio public universities aimed at "cancel culture"

Ohio University students walk on campus
Dan Konik
Statehouse News Bureau

Republican Senators have proposed a bill that makes big changes in public universities in Ohio, aiming at what some conservatives call “cancel culture”. It includes proposals that have been introduced in other Republican-run states.

It includes banning strikes by university employees and ending required diversity training. It would also halt new contracts for partnerships or programs with Chinese institutions, including research, though current contracts can continue till their end.

Senate Bill 83 would also:

  • ban "political and ideological litmus tests" in hiring, promotion or admissions
  • require annual evaluations of faculty, and make student evaluations part of that
  • create a review policy for those with tenure
  • require all students to take three credit hours of American history courses covering the US constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
  • require syllabi or course outlines to be published in searchable form online, including the name and biography of the instructor
  • require training for public university trustees through the Chancellor's office

And any institution that receives state funds must submit a statement that affirms this language in the bill:

  1. The institution is committed to intellectual diversity.
  2. The institution is committed to free speech protection for students, staff, and faculty.
  3. The institution does not require diversity, equity, and inclusion courses or training for students, staff, or faculty.
  4. The institution complies with the syllabus requirements prescribed under section 3345.029 of the Revised Code as if it were a state institution of higher education.

Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirkland) said he’s proposing this after hearing from concerned residents.

“Local control may be a nice concept, but the dollars that keep these institutions going come from the state and the taxpayers," Cirino said. "And the taxpayers that I have talked to, many of them are very unhappy with the trend going in our institutions that they are focused on more social change than on true intellectual diversity."

Higher education has long been supportive of free speech and diverse viewpoints, including offering perspectives on race, gender and other areas that challenge public policy and even debunk historical narratives. But conservatives have raised concerns in the last decade, saying right-leaning political or ideological opinions expressed by students, professors or even visiting speakers can lead them to be ignored, rejected or “canceled”.

And Republicans in Ohio have pushed back against unions for years, including in 2011, when they attempted to pass a law to make major changes that would affect police, teachers and other unionized public employees. That law, Senate Bill 5, was soundly repealed.

Language in the bill mirrors model legislation used in other conservative-backed bills and other Republican states to ban teaching on “divisive concepts” and critical race theory, which is not taught in K-12 schools but can be taught at the college level. Some of those bills have brought concerns that factual information about slavery, the discriminatory practice of “redlining”, and the civil rights and women’s movements won’t be included, and that courses in African-American and women’s studies, among others, will no longer be able to be offered.

When asked about language on coursework in the bill, Cirino said, "We're not trying to design the actual courses or the curriculum here, but the intent is certainly that we want graduates to understand the fundamentals of this country and our founding and how the country works. The good, the bad and the ugly, of course."

Cirino said he's aware that critics may say the state is going too far with this far-ranging bill.

"Some have also accused me of being against academic freedom, and I would challenge that and say that it's quite the opposite," Cirino said. "This bill actually, in my view, enhances academic, true academic freedom so that everybody has a voice. We're not suggesting that one voice should be heard more than another in an academic environment where we're teaching our students to think for themselves not what to think."

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Ohio State University, the state's largest public institution of higher education, said in a statement: "Ohio State looks forward to reviewing the legislation and working with our partners at the Statehouse throughout the legislative process."

Legislation seeking similar changes in policies at public universities and bans on mandatory diversity training have been introduced in other Republican-run states, including Alabama, Florida, Iowa and Texas.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.