Ohio Republican attack on higher ed will devastate our widely respected colleges and universities

May 23, 2023 4:30 am

COLUMBUS, OH — SEPTEMBER 02: On the campus of The Ohio State University, September 2, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal / Republish photo only with original story)

Bad news, Buckeyes. Ohio has officially gone down the Florida rabbit hole on Ohio State University and every other public college and university in the state. The new abnormal of legislative extremism in Columbus hit a whole new level of atrocious last week with passage of a bill “to rescue higher education in Ohio from itself” with compelled censorship and illiberalism.

Your alarm sensor should be off the charts. Ohio Republicans are following the dystopian playbook on education written by the Florida fascist in Tallahassee. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is honing his authoritarian skills set to try to become president, has led the hostile political takeover of freedom of speech, freedom to learn, and to freedom to thrive in schools and universities across his state. 

The dour despot has used curricula, textbooks, and “woke litmus tests” to weed out educators who value diversity, equity, and inclusion, or who stray into restricted topics with students. What DeSantis is doing to academic independence and autonomy in Florida is a jarring throwback to 1930s Germany. 

His diktats on higher education mandate conformity to his ideology. They are designed to tighten state control over acceptable and intolerable views of on campuses. His campaign to crush thinking on race, gender, culture, and history — that doesn’t comport with his — is truly the stuff of totalitarian nightmares. 

But Ohio Senate Republicans can’t wait to go there. They just passed a sweeping higher education measure (Ohio Senate Bill 83) to control thought in state colleges and universities. A companion bill is making its way through the Ohio House. So brace yourself. This could end badly for free thinkers at any of the state’s 14 four-year public universities. 

SB 83 is a no holds barred crackdown of academic freedom in higher ed to rein in “woke” institutions positively biased against conspiracy-addled right-wingers. It is that insane and that scary. In their hard-right bubble of imaginings, Republican lawmakers have decided to wage war against runaway “liberal bias” in Ohio’s (widely regarded) higher education system that has decidedly “gone way too far to the left.” 

Now if you’re a graduate of one of these heretofore vaunted institutions suddenly under attack with SB 83 — and have no idea what the heck these wingnuts are talking about — you’ve got plenty of company. This bill to create “true” academic freedom is nothing more than a manufactured imperative to present a tough-guy, own-the-libs MAGA front.  

Imposing educational gag orders on what people can say or do in state universities (government overreach on steroids) satisfies abstract conservative grievances and scores political points. MAGA Republicans forcing drastic changes, “course correction,” on college campuses as an “urgently needed” remedy (to enforce their ideological demands) are playing to their base. 

Never mind that their Orwellian SB 83, filled with prohibitions and restrictions on behavior and speech in higher education, drew hundreds of outraged students, teachers and defenders of academic freedom to the Statehouse. Protestors gathered on campuses across the state to fight for the free exchange of diverse ideas in pursuit of knowledge and truth. But SB 83 sailed through the Senate nonetheless. Why? Gerrymandered legislators turning Ohio into Florida are under no threat of losing their jobs by approving wildly unpopular legislation. 

That’s why they drew lopsided partisan districts (rejected five times by the Ohio Supreme Court) to rig elections with predictable outcomes. Republican legislators effectively gave themselves power for life to control every aspect of ours. Despite overwhelming opposition to the toxic assault on academic instruction in SB 83, it is on track to become law in Ohio. 

The right-wing beat-down on “woke” workplace training, (that recognizes a plurality of perspectives and acceptance of all) on critical thinking, (God forbid students become independent thinkers) on what state university professors can say in their teaching, on course requirements and content, on resistance (prohibiting employee strikes) and more is madness.

The damage such a repressive measure could inflict on state colleges and universities would be irreparable. Why would renown scholars want to teach in Ohio when they can be penalized for perceived bias or for holding classroom conversations on “controversial beliefs or policies ” or for being the political enemy-of-the moment?

Why would professors stay in a state where it is politically fashionable to attack faculty expertise, autonomy, and governance? Why would students invest their time, money and futures in a higher education system where the freedom to think, question and share ideas is restricted but mandated American history classes posit unchallenged patriotism?

Why would members of minority communities feel welcomed or supported in state universities prohibited from spending state or federal funds on diversity, equity and inclusion programs that could be crucial in combatting implicit bigotry? They wouldn’t. 

So why would Senate Republicans endorse unfettered state authority to muzzle freedom of expression in education and force blind allegiance over independence to chill and disrupt academic freedom in higher education? Same reason DeSantis stokes his “war on woke” with Florida’s university system.

It’s a winning strategy. Getting rid of “woke” educators, programs, curriculum, books, (anything that hints at progressivism in public education) appeals to MAGA voters. Ohio Senate Bill 83 goes down the Florida rabbit hole not to “enhance” higher education in the state but to win elections. 

Even if it destroys what makes Ohio great.



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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.