COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Ohio Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee had a long Wednesday evening, confronted by hundreds of professors, students and education professionals given five minutes apiece to denounce a bill they view as an existential threat to higher education in Ohio.

The South Hearing room overflowed with university professors, teaching assistants and students, some clad in red, many wearing stickers with “SB 83” crossed out. Protesters lined the halls and filled the rotunda, the designated overflow room, listening to hours of testimony – from professors and students, and also members of the NAACP, the ACLU of Ohio and the Columbus YWCA – and questioning about Senate Bill 83.

The bill, dubbed the “Higher Education Enhancement Act,” would overhaul higher education through, among other things, banning faculty strikes, outlawing mandatory diversity training and preventing Ohio universities from partnering with Confucius Institutes and other Chinese research institutions. 

Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), chair of the Workforce and Higher Education Committee and SB83’s sponsor, did not testify for his bill Wednesday. But he’s argued before the committee and the press that his bill is a much-needed course correction that restores universities to their intended goal of fostering an environment of critical thinking, debate and ideological diversity. 

In sharp and emphatic dissent, opponents testified the bill threatens the academic freedom it intends to protect, and it amounts to significant government interference in academia. 

The bill tackles several areas Cirino views as needing improvement. As institutions, colleges and universities would be barred from taking any stance on “the public policy controversies of the day, or any other ideology, principle, concept, or formulation that requires commitment to any controversial belief or policy” – unless it’s in support of a U.S. declaration of war. Institutions would be prevented from using “political and ideological litmus tests” in hiring and admissions decisions, including the use of diversity statements on applications.

Faculty would be further barred from teaching a multitude of concepts, including the view that individuals can be “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” All course curricula would have to be approved using an “intellectual diversity rubric,” and course syllabi detailing instructors’ “biographical information” must be publicly available online.

Although the bill makes no explicit mention of critical race theory, its critics, like Emily Houh, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, argued its prohibition is heavily implied, and the vagueness of the bill will create a chilling effect among academics researching ethnic studies, gender studies and related fields.

“Our continuously evolving democracy cannot exist or flourish if its citizens cannot be educated about the complex facets of American history and society, even if and perhaps especially because those facets are ‘controversial,’” Houh said.

Rep. Josh Williams, one of four proponents who submitted testimony and sponsor of House Bill 151, the companion to Cirino’s bill, said that he, and many other academics, have fallen victim to the “de-facto censorship regime on college campuses” that stifles controversial opinions. He said that as a law student, professors were instructed not to cold-call on him because his beliefs amounted to discrimination, and students attempted to sabotage his grades.

“I was surrounded by individuals that believed the color of my skin determined what kind of opinions I should have,” Williams said. “And as soon as I didn’t align with what they believed was appropriate for a Black in America to believe, I was ostracized, not only by faculty, but by students,” Williams said.

Cirino has argued his bill empowers those whose opinions and beliefs have been dismissed by the education establishment by enabling them to report, in required teaching evaluations, whether the professor created a classroom environment “free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias.” Those evaluations would be consolidated into an average score, which must be published on each professor’s webpage.

Opponents testified that Cirino’s bill promotes punitive measures against faculty with whom conservatives – in the classroom and out of it – disagree. The bill requires institutions to discipline faculty who disobey the prescribed policies through sanctions including censure and firing. It bans faculty strikes during contract negotiations, and it implements post-tenure review.

While questioning Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, Cirino argued the ban on striking is necessary to prevent faculty from “holding students hostage” as a bargaining tool. Sen. Bill Reineke asked DiMauro whether he thought of higher education as a business transaction between universities and tuition-paying students.

“It shouldn’t be lost that when we talk about a faculty that’s taking that extraordinary measure to go on strike, they do that not because they’re advocating for their own benefit, but that the working conditions of the faculty are also reflected in the learning conditions of students,” DiMauro said.

Hours passed in the hearing room, as opponent after opponent rose to the podium to decry what they called a governmental overreach into classrooms and a will to ignore the harmful legacies of systemic racism and sexism. Several students spoke of their intent to leave Ohio for postgraduate degrees, while professors recalled the fights of decades ago – born out of faculty and student protests – for African American and gender studies programs at universities across the state. Despite more than four hours of testimony, just a fraction of the 500 people who submitted testimony spoke to the committee.

Rev. Jack Sullivan, executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, reminded the committee of the collective decision weeks ago to move clocks forward for Daylight Saving Time, a move that routinely brings the “discomfort of losing an hour of sleep” and annual calls to rid society of the time change.

“As I read page after descriptive page of SB83, I formed the opinion that it is not a daylight-saving, human flourishing, light-producing measure, but one that embraces the shorter and darker days of standard time,” Sullivan said. “Only this standard time is not simply about turning back our clocks for 60 minutes but instead for 60 years to a time, a standard time, when African Americans and other people of color in this state and across the country were frequently brutalized and trivialized.”