Ohio Senate passes massive higher education overhaul bill, House version hears opponent testimony

Senate Bill 83 passed in a 21-10 vote and now moves to the GOP-supermajority House for committee consideration.

By: - May 18, 2023 5:00 am
College students graduating. Getty Images.

College students graduating. Getty Images.

The Ohio Senate passed a massive higher education bill that would significantly alter college campuses. 

Wednesday’s 21-10 vote comes a week after changes and clarification were made to Senate Bill 83, which was introduced by state Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland in March. SB 83 now moves to the House for committee consideration.

Republican state Sen. Louis W. Blessing, III, Sen. Nathan Manning and Sen. Michele Reynolds joined the seven Senate democrats in voting against the bill, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act. Reynolds flipped her vote after voting in support of SB 83 Wednesday morning during the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee meeting.

“This legislation is an urgently needed course correction,” Cirino said. “If you desire an education that involves learning analytic skills, evaluating many ideas and many sides of issues and how to think better, not what to think, this bill is for you.”

If SB 83 is passed by the GOP-supermajority House, university staff and employees would be banned from striking, college students would be required to take certain American history courses, professor tenure would be based around “bias,” and Board of Trustees terms would be reduced from nine years down to four. 

The Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee passed SB 83 Wednesday morning by a 4-1 party vote, with the lone dissenting vote coming from state Sen. Catherine D. Ingram, D-Cincinnati. Opponents clad in red, some with black masking tape over their mouths, packed the committee meeting. More than 100 people submitted written opponent testimony.

What is in SB 83? 

The original version of SB 83 would have mainly impacted public schools and, among other things, ban programs with Chinese schools, ban mandatory diversity training, prohibit university staff and employees from striking, require American history courses, and mandate tenure evaluations based on if the educator showed bias or taught with bias. 

COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 08: State Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, during the Ohio Senate session, February 8, 2023, in the Senate Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Some of the bill’s revisions, among others, include clarifying the segregation of faculty and staff based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression is only prohibited in classroom settings, orientations and graduations; allowing mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training for certain exemptions; and existing college programs with Chinese institutions can remain as long as there are specific requirements in place.

Other changes would require Boards of Trustees to create policies on tenure and update those policies every five years, and shorten a trustee’s tenure — something Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman likes. 

“When someone is appointed to a 9 year-term there is almost no accountability,” he said. “A governor could get elected two times and never replace that appointment.” 

Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis signed a law earlier this week that defunded diversity, equity and inclusion programs at publicly-funded colleges and limits how race can be discussed in many courses. 

More than 30 anti-DEI bills have been introduced across numerous states, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

What senators said about SB 83

Several senators shared their thoughts on SB 83 for a little over an hour before taking a vote. Those in favor of the bill said it would encourage diversity of thought, but those opposed to the bill said it would cause students and professors to leave Ohio. 

But Cirino said he isn’t concerned about potential brain drain. 

“When all is said and done here, our universities are going to be better,” he said. “We are going to attract more people who have been turned away because of the liberal bias that is incontrovertible in our institutions in Ohio.”

Ohio’s 14 public universities generated $68.9 billion to the state’s economy in the last fiscal year — representing 8.8% of Ohio’s total gross state product, according to a study that was released last week by Lightcast, an independent consulting firm, on behalf of the Inter-University Council of Ohio.

State Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said conservative students deserve to speak freely.

“For some reason when they want to speak, they are silenced,” he said. “They are made to feel not welcome.”

State Sen. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, said there’s no evidence Ohio’s universities are ineffectively educating students and doesn’t see how this bill would improve higher education. 

“This would be the worst assault on academic freedom that Ohio has ever seen,” he said. 

Senate Minority Leader Nickie J. Antonio, D-Lakewood, said pay might have something to do with not having enough conservative faculty at Ohio’s universities. 

“If you raise the pay, you probably raise how many faculty would be there,” she said. “To take away the bargaining rights seems counterintuitive if you are really trying to get more conservative folks at universities.” 

SB 83 backlash 

More than 100 people testified against SB 83 for more than seven hours about a month ago during a marathon Senate Workforce and Higher Education committee meeting. 

Ohio State University Board of Trustees oppose SB 83, saying it diminishes “Ohio State’s ability to fulfill its educational and research missions and negatively impact the state’s economic future.”

“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 trustees said in a statement Tuesday. 

Companion Bill 

House Bill 151 was introduced as a companion bill in April by state Rep. Steve Demetriou, R-Bainbridge Twp., and Rep. Josh Williams, R-Oregon. Opponents testified against HB 151 for two and a half hours during the House Higher Education committee meeting Wednesday morning. 

Ohio Federation of Teacher President Melissa Cropper said the bill is unneeded, unproductive, threatens academic freedom and puts Ohio colleges at a competitive disadvantage.

“We are at a real crisis point and we are addressing the wrong problems in education and this bill is an example of that,” she said. 

Just the introduction of these bills is scaring faculty and students away, said Stephen Mockabee, an political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and a member of UC’s American Association of University Professors.

“This is a very important concern that we will have a brain drain in Ohio,” he said.

Higher Education Committee ranking member Rep. Joe Miller echoed these sentiments in a statement. 

“HB 151/SB 83 will make it extremely difficult to attract students and faculty to Ohio, which will be extraordinarily damaging to our economy, financially impacting cities from Akron, to Athens, Kent and Columbus,” Miller said. 

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on Twitter.



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Megan Henry
Megan Henry

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the last five years reporting on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network.