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Higher Education Enhancement Act would require universities to teach ‘both sides’ of climate change

Senate Bill 83 sponsor Jerry C. Cirino speaking at the Statehouse last June
Ohio Senate
Senate Bill 83 sponsor Jerry C. Cirino speaking at the statehouse last June

Senate Bill 83 is scheduled for a second hearing today (Wednesday, March 29) at the statehouse in Columbus

A new bill called the Higher Education Enhancement Act in the Ohio Statehouse would classify abortion, electoral politics, marriage, immigration, & diversity, equity & inclusion as “controversial” topics. Under the proposed Senate Bill 83, colleges and universities will have to teach "both sides" of those controversial issues in order to receive certain state funding. Cleveland-based Energy News Network journalist Kathiann Kowalski read the entirety of SB83 and found that it also considers climate science to be a controversial topic. WYSO Environmental Reporter Chris Welter spoke with Kowalski about her reporting on the bill.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity)

Kathiann Kowalski: On the surface it looks like a higher education bill, and most of the earlier press on the bill had highlighted major features, including the fact that the bill would prohibit diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training. The bill also would prohibit strikes by faculty and staff and require “intellectual diversity” at colleges and universities.

It didn't look like it would cover climate change but then when I actually read the statute, when it defines controversial belief or policy, it says it’s any belief or policy that is the subject of political controversy, including such issues as climate change, electoral politics, foreign policy, DEI, immigration, marriage or abortion. So it's in the details of the bill but climate change is the first topic that's expressly listed as a controversial belief or policy.

Under the proposed law, public institutions, and even private institutions, are required to have intellectual diversity as a condition of getting any funds from the state at all– intellectual diversity is defined as including multiple divergent and opposing perspectives.

So climate change is somewhat hidden in the details of the bill, but it's there.

Chris Welter: You talked to the bill's sponsor, State Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), can you give us a sense of what he said about it?

Kathiann: He said he did not write this bill to affect energy policy. He said that's not what he was intending to do at all.

I asked whether he believed in climate change as being established as a matter of science, and he said he disagreed with the extent of it and with the policy solutions. He further said that he didn't see why everybody was so upset about the bill.

I asked him if this bill would mean you wouldn't be able to teach about climate change in Ohio colleges and universities? He said you could teach about it as long as you taught both sides.

That approach runs into problems with the variety of scientists who say the science of climate change is established at this point.

Students stroll around the campus of Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta.
Chris Shinn
Courtesy of Spelman College
Students stroll around the campus of Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta.

Chris: You spoke to a number of people in Ohio that have concerns about the bill. What did they say?

Kathiann: Sure, one person I talked to was Cyrus Taylor, who's a professor at Case Western. His concern was, first, that the science behind climate change is established, that we know that greenhouse gasses are linked to warming of Earth's overall climate, that that is having various impacts, and that that is driven in large part by human emissions of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels. His other concern was that the bill would affect what could be taught in the classroom, which would also affect how universities would be able to recruit students and recruit faculty. He also said the bill could have impacts on the energy policy that would ultimately be affected in the state.

Another person I talked to was Dion Mensah at the Ohio Environmental Council, and they said that this not only would have those impacts, but beyond that, when you combine it with the restrictions on DEI training, you would have a student body, that would include some future lawmakers in it, who would not be able to have cultural competence to deal with and understand different groups in society. Mensah said that SB83 was basically just setting up Ohio to have a continuation of the same policies that have very disparate impacts on different people.

Chris: So after doing your research and speaking with the state senator who sponsored this bill, what did you find out about the resources he used to write, or the influences he had in writing, the bill?

Kathiann: He said that the bill’s basis is in large part from his own research, but he also had looked at materials from various groups, including one group, the National Association of Scholars, that specifically says it is against DEI training and affirmative action, and has a commented on various K-12 curriculums saying that students should not be spending time learning about climate change in the classroom. He said some of the bill was taken from a model piece of legislation from the National Association of Scholars, but if you do a read of the two bills, it’s not a straight word for word match.

The organization said in a statement on March 22nd that it was glad that Senator Cirino had taken some concepts from their own model bill and that they like the additions he made and that they're going to be delighted to publicize this throughout the nation. So I think that means we can expect Senate Bill 83, if it progresses, to be touted throughout the country as something that other states may be encouraged to take up.

Chris: What’s the status of SB83 at the statehouse?

Kathiann: It had its first hearing last week when Senator Cirino offered his witness testimony as sponsor. The bill is scheduled for its second hearing this week. The list of witnesses includes several people who are trustees at various colleges–most of them are community colleges as well as the University of Cincinnati. It does not look as if that group of witnesses presents a variety of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds

Senator Cirino says that while he obviously doesn't have full control of the Senate, he is chair of the Workforce and Higher Education committee that's handling the bill and he wants to expedite it if he can.

In terms of the chances of passage. I do not know. I know there is a lot of opposition against the bill from people in higher education, in large part because of the no strike provisions and the restrictions on teaching DEI and a variety of other concepts. There is also a lot of vagueness in the bill about letting students come to their own conclusions, which raises questions. Some professors have asked, “How are we supposed to grade a paper?"

So there is a fair amount of opposition. I would give the bill at this point maybe a 50/50 chance of becoming law.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.