Community’s role in discourse on Senate Bill 83

The Lantern
Senate Bill 83, also called the “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act,” was introduced by Ohio State Senator Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, on March 14. Credit: Tom Hanks | Lantern File Photo

Senate Bill 83, also referred to as the “Ohio Higher Education Advancement Act,” amassed over 470 submitted testimonies supporting or opposing the bill before it passed the Ohio Senate on May 17 for its potential to limit diversity, equity and inclusion training, ban university faculty from striking and stop public universities from taking public positions on some topics.

Out of the testimonies submitted during the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee’s hearings on April 19 and May 17, at least a quarter were associated with Ohio State. Of this group that openly identified themselves as current students or faculty of the university at the time of the hearing, one person was listed as a proponent, two as interested parties and the remainder as opponents.

“This bill is based on political culture wars and preys on fear-mongering abstracts often highlighted in partisan media outlets,” Joe Bjorkman, a fourth-year in philosophy, politics and economics, said in his testimony. “It will ruin our state’s universities and will be a detrimental factor in potential students who consider attending colleges in Ohio.”

Bjorkman’s fear of economic ramifications through students attending public schools in Ohio was echoed in a statement from Ohio State’s Board of Trustees on May 17, where they openly opposed the bill. In addition, the board said they fear ambiguous language around “controversial matters” in the bill will be difficult for professors to navigate.

“We acknowledge the issues raised by this proposal but believe there are alternative solutions that will not undermine the shared governance model of universities, risk weakened academic rigor, or impose extensive and expensive new reporting mandates,” the statement said. “Trustees will seek to continue to engage with the members of the legislature to address the fundamental flaws in this current version that diminish Ohio State’s ability to fulfill its educational and research missions and negatively impact the state’s economic future.”

Many professors submitted testimonies as private citizens using their knowledge of teaching and the higher education system in Ohio. Mytheli Sreenivas, a professor in the Ohio State Department of History and of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, said her own experiences with students led her to see the negative ramifications of the bill.

“As a teacher, I have tremendous respect and care for my students. It is an honor to be part of their academic journeys, and this is not a responsibility I take lightly. I welcome diversity of thought in my classroom, and I strive to create an environment where civic dialogue is the norm,” Sreenivas said in her April testimony. “My goal is to teach the skills of research, writing, critical reading, and historical analysis that enable Ohio students to understand our society’s complex challenges. Substitute Senate Bill 83’s labeling of certain topics as ‘controversial’ offers nothing to benefit Ohio students, and instead, threatens much harm.”

Sreenivas and many others in the Ohio State community submitted testimony for both hearings, voicing concern that changes made between the April and May hearing were not adequate to address the concerns with the bill. Ryan Skinner, associate professor of musicology, repeated concerns in his two testimonies about intellectual diversity and limits to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“There is no shortage of intellectual diversity at the Ohio State University. A visit to a faculty meeting in any of our many units across the College would demonstrate this fact. As faculty, we often disagree, discuss, and debate issues pertinent to hiring, curriculum development, teaching,” Skinner said. “Some of these debates represent significant differences of opinion. This is part of the normal, and appropriate conduct of our profession. We work through our differences and make choices that we believe are in the best interests of our faculty in students. That is as it should be.”

Adam Abbott, a 2023 graduate with an associate of arts and computer and information sciences major, was the only person listed on the legislature’s website as a proponent who identified themselves as part of the Ohio State community. He sees the bill having the opposite effect on students, and hoped the bill would help to prevent faculty from “enforcing their opinions on others, regardless of their beliefs.”

“This bill will allow students like me to express our opinions in a variety of ways without having to worry about repercussions,” Abbott said in his testimony. “Senate Bill 83 will do more for students than any DEI or university administration office could effectively do to preserve our ability to obtain a depoliticized education.”

Other students, including newly elected Undergraduate Student Government President Bobby McAlpine, a rising fourth-year in engineering and Vice President Madison Mason, a third-year in political science, who signed testimony with 12 other student governmental officials from across the state.

“Senate Bill 83, if passed, could upend the very academic freedoms and integrity which proponents of said bill claim it would enhance. In our view and experiences, this bill seeks to impose unreasonably authoritative expectations and restrictions upon what is taught, and how discussions are had, within college classrooms which could be potentially detrimental to student learning,” their testimony stated.

Since passing the Ohio Senate, the legislation is currently in committee in the Ohio House of Representatives where it must be passed before getting signed by Gov. Mike DeWine.

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