A controversial Republican bill that targets higher education has been added to a state budget proposal

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Among the many last-minute provisions tucked into the Ohio Senate budget bill proposal is one that would significantly alter how higher education institutions deal with diversity, among other things.

The Ohio Statehouse behind trees
[Statehouse News Bureau]
This is just one piece of a Republican Senate bill targeting higher education that was pasted into the Senate’s version of the budget bill.

Other provisions lifted from the bill would prohibit universities from endorsing or opposing “any controversial belief” and require that professors promote “intellectual diversity” in the classroom.

This was all part of Senate Bill 83, which passed the Senate in May and has been sitting in a House committee since then. The contents of this bill were among the thousands of pages the Senate added to the budget bill passed by the House.

It remains to be seen whether the provisions from SB 83 remain in the budget bill, House Bill 33. The House rejected the Senate amendments on Wednesday, sending the bill to a conference committee, where members of both chambers will try to iron out their differences.

As SB 83 moved through the Senate, more than 400 opponents testified against the bill in committee hearings. Inserting the bill’s contents into the budget bill bypasses additional committee hearings in the House.

One of SB 83’s goals is to make sure universities aren’t providing any unfair advantages or disadvantages to students or staff based on “race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

Olivia Gallo, a Miami University student majoring in social justice who has protested Senate Bill 83, says the moves the bill makes to address disparities in opportunities will ultimately have a negative impact on universities.

“It just forces everyone down,” Gallo said. “Cutting DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and cutting the conversations and cutting all of that stuff doesn’t give the other side a leg up.”

However, the bill’s supporters believe DEI offices have failed to accomplish their intended purposes and have only made the higher-ed experience more unfair.

“Some of the implicit bias training, for example, that have come around and said, ‘Look, if you make it mandatory, that can actually be counterproductive because it can engender a backlash by folks,’” said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the Buckeye Institute.

“I thought this bill was a reasonable attempt to end some of the abuses that are going on in higher-ed in the area of diversity,” said Richard Vedder, a former Ohio University professor who testified in support of the bill.

In his testimony, Vedder offered as an example a situation when, he said, somebody reached out to Ohio University’s “DEI bureaucracy” which then “recommended radical new selection procedures” for recipients of the school’s distinguished professor award.

Critics believe the legislation would harm groups who rely on services provided by diversity offices like veterans and those with disabilities.

“DEI programs are not just about race and gender,” Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, an associate professor at Miami University, said in her testimony opposing the bill. “They include veteran status, religious belief, disability, and the list goes on.”

Ohio State University student Kaleb Washington said in his testimony opposing the bill that campus counselors provided by the DEI offices helped him navigate “life-threatening” circumstances. Under the bill, he says there could be no DEI office to help students like him.

“A lot of it seems to be, whether intentionally or not, a method of eroding safe spaces for students of more marginalized identities,” said Tori Haller, an Ohio State University student.

Bill critics say DEI offices play an important role in helping minority groups. 

 In testimony, NAACP Ohio Conference president Tom Roberts said the legislation “will prohibit the university support for programs which have successfully increased Black student recruitment and retention.”

The bill would require universities to promote intellectual diversity in the classroom and would require a process for punishing faculty, students and others who interfere with “the intellectual diversity rights of another.”

Some critics say the vagueness of the bill’s language would make it difficult to follow its requirements.

The Inter-University Council of Ohio (IUC), which represents 14 public universities in the state, mentioned these concerns in a letter opposing the bill.

IUC President Laura Lanese said the language in the bill is “so broad and subjective that universities cannot ascertain the meaning without guessing.”

The bill also would mandate that universities as an institution cannot endorse or oppose certain concepts or ideologies. This includes “diversity, social justice, sustainability, systematic racism, equity, or inclusion” and ideologies that “divides identity groups into oppressed and oppressors.”

Universities have long taken public stances on public issues. For example, in 2020 Ohio University published a statement in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd.

Critics worry that the language used in the bill could end up being used to prevent classroom discussions about these issues.

“We feel like it would just demolish our social justice major as a whole,” Gallo said. “Literally everything that we sit down and talk about will be not allowed to talk about.”

Supporters believe universities shouldn’t be endorsing any political ideology.

“I think universities should be politically neutral,” Vedder said. “They should stay out of politics, stay out of public policy issues.”

The bill does say its language is not intended to prohibit “faculty or students from classroom instruction, discussion, or debate, so long as faculty members remain committed to expressing intellectual diversity and allowing intellectual diversity to be expressed.”

In testimony, supporters of the bill have shared studies that suggest conservative students are afraid to share their views on college campuses.

“It’s about the self-censorship that a lot of students are engaging in right now because they’re afraid that if they discuss any of their own personal views that there will be a very negative effect on what their grades are,” Lawson said.

The bill’s opponents say research suggests the opposition conservative students receive comes from other students, not professors.

“The biggest reason that students feel reluctant to speak up about political issues is they fear retribution from other students,” said Stephen Mockabee, a member of the American Association of University Professors. “Most students surveyed agree that professors allow both sides to be presented.”

The bill also takes steps to potentially restrict the collective bargaining rights of university employees. Along with a variety of other types of workers, including police officers and firefighters, any “employees of any state institution of higher education” will not be allowed to strike.

Mockabee said the bill would be stripping away a valuable right that faculty have to protect themselves.

“The best protection that a faculty member can have is a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees due process and fair treatment,” Mockabee said.

The bill also would limit a university’s ability to collaborate in a variety of ways with the Chinese government. Under the legislation, no state institution or higher education facility would be able to accept “gifts, donations, or contributions” from the People’s Republic of China.