“Amid the tidal wave of proposals across the country that would eliminate diversity efforts at public colleges, Ohio’s Senate Bill 83 stands out.” That’s the lead to a recent article by Kate Marijolovic in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The American Historical Association warns that the Ohio bill’s “unwieldy omnibus of contradictory mandates would not only enable but even require classroom-level intervention by state officials.”
I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I’ve grown numb to the flood of Republican attempts to tell students what they can’t study, administrators what they are not allowed to support, librarians what they are prohibited from putting on their shelves, women what parts of their anatomies they no longer control, the trans community who they are not permitted to be, LGBTQ+ young people what they must never talk about, Disney (Disney!) what the company can’t challenge…
Just a hot minute ago, these same legislators were denouncing the Big Brother state for dictating what you could and couldn’t do. Remember the Right’s outrage when Michelle Obama encouraged food companies to market healthier food to children? “This is none of her business,” Rush Limbaugh puffed. “The free market takes care of this stuff…We believe in people having choice, to live their life as they choose. Coca-Cola, Twinkies, don’t kill anybody.” And then there’s Representative Gary Palmer (R-Alabama) who, in response to the research linking gas stoves to pollutants that harm both human health and the environment, tweeted: “It is time to rein in the Biden administration and their continual desire to control American’s lives and decisions.”
The same folks who ridiculed “snowflake” students for not being able to handle the most trivial inconvenience without suffering a nervous breakdown, are now clutching their conservative pearls because school students might be “uncomfortable” were they to glance at the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges being protected from an angry segregationist mob as she attempted to integrate an elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. A Tennessee law makes lesson plans illegal if students “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.” A proposed law in South Carolina prohibits teachers from discussing any topic that creates “discomfort, guilt or anguish” on the basis of political belief. And, of course, there’s Florida, where legislation forbids lessons that could cause individuals to experience discomfort, guilt or another form of “psychological distress” based on actions committed in the past by members of the same race, color, sex or national origin. The assumptions behind these prohibitions are dismaying, Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, recently argued, as they presume that “white children won’t identify with Black people and people of color. It presumes cutting off the moral imagination of white children so that they can’t imagine themselves as being any kind of actor in history…We, none of us, are bound by our genealogy. We’re bound by our values.”
We could call these folks hypocritical, their actions paradoxical, their behavior shameful, the moment ironic. But the principle guiding Republican flip-flops is actually pretty consistent. For Republican lawmakers racing these bills through their state legislatures faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind, power is good; more power, better; all power, best. It’s perfectly consistent for them to blast the government for attempting to control their bodies when told to mask-up during a Covid pandemic while at the same time asserting their right to control a woman’s uterus. They won’t be fazed when you point out the duplicity of suddenly being shocked at the thought that schoolkids might feel uncomfortable when discussing this nation’s history of racism – even though research shows that these conversations can dispel causes of bias and distress – while displaying no concern for the “discomfort” of Black students who, once they were even admitted into the country’s schools, spent generations and generations reading from textbooks that whitewashed their history, faced disciplinary actions at rates much higher than their white counterparts, were disproportionately more likely to have police in their schools than white students, and on and on.
So far, 17 states have introduced bills to ban or limit diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI programs. Following the lead of Texas’ 2021 law that allows anyone to sue an abortion provider who violates the state’s abortion ban, legislation in Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas would deputize regular citizens to carry out their war against those who would dare to allow students to learn more about race, identity and the darker parts of American history.
So, what makes the Ohio bill “stand out” among all these other dismal attempts to drag us back to the 1950s (or the 1850s, or the 1790s – since that seems to be where the Supreme Court’s Puritans suggest we find the appropriate standards for how to live our 21st century lives)?
Here are a few of the things that the bill would do.
- “Controversial beliefs or policies” would be banned from public colleges and universities in Ohio as a means of preventing them from becoming centers of “indoctrination.” And what are “controversial beliefs or policies?” “…Any belief or policy that is the subject of political controversy, including issues such as climate change, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion.” Encouraging students to vote? Controversial; Supporting equal rights for all students on campus? Controversial. Attempting to achieve climate neutrality on campus? Controversial.
- Similar to many of the other anti-DEI laws circulating in the country, Ohio’s SB 83 would cut funds from public colleges and universities that don’t affirmatively oppose diversity training or programs for students, faculty or staff. (Such programs, like the ones above, are described as a “controversial belief or policy.”)
- Public colleges and universities would be prohibited from using “political and ideological litmus tests” in hiring or promotion; diversity statements would be prohibited, but otherwise what these “tests” might be is left undefined.
- All new courses must submit an “intellectual diversity rubric” before they can be approved. Similar to the “ideological litmus test,” the bill doesn’t define what “intellectual diversity” is or who would be in charge of approving the rubrics.
- No state institution would be allowed to fund or support “any position, material benefit, policy, program, and activity that advantages or disadvantages faculty, staff, or students by any group identity,” except that they may offer advantages to US citizens and Ohio residents. Once again, “group identity” isn’t defined. Diversity scholarships will likely be prohibited as would any support to clubs such as the African American Voices Gospel Choir or the Association for Women in Mathematics Student Chapter (both current clubs at the Ohio State University).
- Colleges and universities would be prohibited from disadvantaging or segregating any students by “membership in groups defined by…sex or sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” No need to worry about “men’s” or “women’s” sports, since they would be prohibited under SB 83. along with formal recognition of sororities and fraternities.
- Colleges and universities must post all course syllabi online. Say hello to the “heckler’s veto”: A single person, unaffiliated with the university and lacking any qualification, who, while spending his spare time surfing the internet, comes across something in a course syllabus that he finds “objectionable,” will now be able to take his outrage straight to the university’s administration (not to mention Fox News) in an attempt to force the faculty member to change, be harassed, or – better yet — fired (a simple enough procedure for a concerned administrator when confronting an adjunct faculty member with no job protection).
- All state institutions of higher education would have to include specific language reflecting the bill’s overall ideology in their mission statements.
- To graduate, all students would have to pass an American history or American government class; the bill stipulates what readings must be included in the course: the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, five essays from the Federalist Papers, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and a few others. History, for the drafters, is best left in the distant past and not brought up to consider the persistence of systemic inequities in the present moment.
- Always looking for ways to keep faculty in line, colleges and universities would be required to discipline professors who “interfere” with anyone’s “intellectual diversity rights” (which are defined as perspectives on public policy issues that are “poorly represented on campus”). It is not hard to imagine a professor who rejects the arguments of a Holocaust denier in a student paper being dragged before a disciplinary board; an evolutionary biologist who won’t accept Biblical interpretations as “evidence” when a student turns in a test? Bring on the discipline.
- Faculty members would receive numerical scores based on student evaluations which institutions would be required to post publicly online. Student evaluations – and research has shown just how deeply flawed these are – would count for at least half of the faculty members’ teaching category in annual performance evaluations.
- New post-tenure review policies would be instituted, with department chairs, deans of faculty, and provosts retaining the right to request them at any time if faculty have a “documented and sustained record of significant underperformance.” Otherwise, faculty members who don’t meet performance expectations for two out of three years would automatically be placed under post-tenure review. Again, just what standards are to be considered is left undisclosed.
- Strikes by all members of public institutions would be prohibited.
- The state chancellor of higher education would help create the “educational” programs to train members of boards of trustees.
- The state chancellor would create new questions for student course evaluations aimed at ensuring no violations of the bill are happening in the classroom.
Wait, there’s more: The bill stipulates that state institutions would not be allowed to accept any funds from China, or organizations or individuals acting on the country’s behalf. That could include family members who pay for their Chinese student’s tuition. It would also prohibit colleges from having academic relations with universities in China or with institutions located elsewhere but affiliated with the country.
Finally, if you think that you’re safe because you teach in a private institution of higher education…think again. The bill also subjects private colleges to many of the same provisions if they receive even a dollar of state funding. These institutions can’t require diversity training, must post all course syllabi online, have to eliminate “political and ideological litmus tests” (except, of course, those mandated by the state), and must submit a document saying that they adhere to these rules with any request for state funding.
Ohio’s SB 83 is, indeed, among the worst of the worst when it comes to Republican attempts to impose a reactionary, racist, and know-nothing ideology on higher education. By forbidding students from engaging in an honest study of the complex past, they won’t make that past – and its ongoing impact –magically disappear. By denying that our educational system is shaped by inequity, they won’t prevent marginalization from impacting student lives. By preventing colleges and universities from partnering with Chinese institutions, they will not equip our graduates with the knowledge that can help this country navigate an increasingly complicated world. And by placing faculty under the hawkish supervision of administrators, trustees, and private citizens, they are certainly not going to enable Ohio to hire the best faculty and attract the most curious and committed students.
This is not just a kind of ideological insanity; these policies are deeply dangerous to the state and the nation. As Brock Read, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently stressed, “Many of the fiercest debates about diversity, equity, inclusion, and race on campuses are really about who college is built to serve and, by extension, what the college experience should look like. As national demographics have shifted and income inequality has deepened, those debates seem to generate more moral urgency, more potency.” These debates are not advanced by a refusal, indeed, a prohibition, on engaging in them.
At this point, the bill has yet to be voted on by the Ohio Senate, but I can hardly wait to see how it will be handled by the Ohio House Higher Education Committee, co-chaired by Representative Dave Dobos. Wait, hold that – Dobbs just stepped down as co-chair when it was revealed that he lied when he claimed on his resume to be a 1977 graduate of MIT. The Columbus-area Republican is also facing an ethics complaint for not disclosing more than $1.4 million in outstanding debts. What better people to be making decisions that impact the future of higher education in Ohio?
(1) Bicycle Trick Riding (1899), a 38” film dated March 20th, 1899 by Thomas A. Edison.
(2) Harrie Irving Hancock, Physical Training for Business Men (1917)
(3) Sad pianist from Peter Ibbetson, Etc published by J.R. Osgood & Co. (1892). Original from the British Library.
7 thoughts on “Ohio Races…to the Back of the Line”
Do you think that these are ultimately ploys to end all state funding for higher education?
Hey, Adina. To your question, yes, absolutely, in the K-12 context. (See Jamelle Bouie’s recent NYT article on the so-called “Parents’ Rights” movement: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/28/opinion/parents-rights-republicans-florida.html.) It’s more complex in higher ed since all but the most troglodyte of the lawmakers knows that Ohio jobs depend on higher ed, and most of that will happen in public settings. So whereas the K-12 push is to privatize education, in higher ed it’s really about controlling content, turning higher ed into skills training, not thinking, and using higher ed as a political punching bag to gin up base voters.
Dear gods. I live in Florida, where we have Governor FloridaMan constantly embarrassing (and worse) people like us (educated liberals, in case you’re wondering 🙂 ). But unfortunately for Ohio, you make a pretty good case that if this bill passes, Ohio might be in worse shape than we are. May I assume that Oberlin does in fact receive some state money?
Any plans to fight this bill?
Oberlin does receive state money and lots of folks in lots of places around the state are fighting as hard as we can.
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