Ohio Senate passes higher education diversity training crackdown

A bill that would ban nearly all diversity and inclusion training requirements at Ohio’s public colleges and universities, prohibit faculty strikes and bar public universities from taking stances on “controversial” topics cleared the GOP-dominated Ohio Senate Wednesday on a 21-10 vote.

The multifaceted bill would drastically change the way that students learn and faculty teach across the nation’s fourth-largest public university system, and comes as other Republican-led states target diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. Just this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bills that prohibit universities from spending money on these types of programs and using related statements in hiring or admission decisions.

In Ohio, the bill’s sponsor Republican Sen. Jerry Cirino, of Kirtland, and other supporters have described it as a needed effort to promote “true intellectual diversity” and a way to help protect conservative speech on campuses.

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“If (lawmakers) do not act now, I feel we will continue down a path of servitude to a woke agenda,” Cirino said.

Three Republicans — Sens. Bill Blessing, Nathan Manning and Michele Reynolds — broke away from their party and joined Democrats in a no-vote.

The bill would prevent universities from mandating any diversity, equity and inclusion training except if necessary for a school’s accreditation, fulfilling federal requirements, maintaining a professional license or securing a grant. These exemptions must first be approved by the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

Students and staff also would not be required to undergo “political or ideological litmus tests” as part of hiring or admissions decisions, such as describing a commitment to a specific concept or principle in order to be accepted. Institutions would be required to incorporate freedom of speech principles into their mission statements and professors must make course syllabi public.

Both tenured and non-tenured professors also would be evaluated on whether or not they create an “atmosphere free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias” in their classrooms.

Dozens of university students and faculty, as well as the 61,000-student Ohio State University, have spoken out against the bill. Many have argued the legislation encourages censorship and allows the Legislature to micromanage higher education — particularly when it comes to defining subjective terms like “bias,” “intellectual diversity” and “controversial matters.”

OSU’s board of trustees said in a statement that while they acknowledge the issues the bill wants to address, they 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.”

Some of their top concerns include negative effects on faculty speech in the classroom for fear of retribution from administration, increased barriers to grant funding and limiting public universities from commenting on important issues in the state.

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Institutions such as OSU would be prohibited from taking public stances on “controversial” topics, such as abortion, electoral politics, marriage and climate policies.

In order to graduate, students would be required under the legislation to pass an American government or history course with a mandatory reading list — the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address and Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Senate Minority Leader Democrat Nickie Antonio of Cleveland questioned if students would be able to adequately discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous writing if subjects like race and system racism could be labeled “controversial topics.”

The measure would also prohibit university faculty from striking during contract negotiations. Cirino said the measure hopes to protect students’ education from being used as “pawns” during negotiations, while opponents say it could keep faculty and other workers from creating better working conditions that lead to better learning environments for students.

Additionally, Ohio universities would be banned from financial relationships with Chinese universities. The bill provides some exceptions for strictly academic relationships, with approval required from the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the state’s attorney general to ensure “national security” safeguards. Chinese students would not be prohibited from attending schools in Ohio.

The legislation now heads to the House for consideration.

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