Ohio higher education overhaul would chill speech and academic freedom with threats of discipline

August 30, 2023 4:30 am
A university professor addressing his students during a lecture. Getty Images.

A university professor addressing his students during a lecture. Getty Images.

Using remarkably clueless wording as our nation reels from rampant wildfires, including the deadliest one in over a century, state Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, recently crowed about how he started a “firestorm” with his proposed SB 83, the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act.

As NOAA elevates its prediction for the number and strength of Atlantic hurricanes this year, he calls concerns about SB 83 by students, Ohio faculty members, and others, “a tempest in a teapot.”

Then, he dismisses his claimed firestorm and tempest, as “not really controversial.” Tut-tut.

Before launching into a confused screed about tuition increases in Ohio public higher education — often in response to cuts in state support by the legislature of which he is a member — he claims his SB 83 “will not ban any courses.”  

There is a technical ember of truth in this claim. Functionally, however, it bans or deeply censors any courses that are “the subject of political controversy,” even if they are not the subject of controversy within their disciplinary field. SB 83 provides no criteria to identify which topics might be politically controversial, apparently leaving that decision to culture war vigilantes.  

Colleagues and I designed and presented an ongoing, popular, interdisciplinary, entry-level course on climate change at Ohio State. Cirino’s original SB 83 wording required teaching ‘both sides’ of “’Controversial belief(s) or polic(ies)’… such as climate change …”. The version passed by the Senate refers to “climate policies,” clarifying nothing.

Cirino also claims SB 83 will enhance freedom of speech on campus. Here, he waffles. All people on all college campuses have freedom of speech. Witness the intentionally gruesome anti-abortion posters that appear routinely on campuses.  

Cirino conflates this constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech of all citizens with the academic freedom of faculty members. Indeed, in his April 4 Columbus Dispatch opinion column, he claims SB 83, “…does the opposite of eliminating academic freedom: it ensures that freedom for students…”.   

Alas, students don’t have academic freedom as understood in higher education. Let me explain.

I exercised academic freedom in my research on the levels at which natural selection operates in nature. My colleagues and I accept that natural selection operates at the level of the individual, where “individual” includes all close relatives, like offspring. Based upon initial field observations, my students and I proposed that under some conditions, natural selection could also act on groups of unrelated individuals.

We received grants to conduct manipulative, behavioral experiments, collect and analyze data, and publish papers, some of them in highly competitive journals. We started this research before I earned tenure in a department with several senior colleagues whose research focused on the individual perspective.  

Once, after presenting a research talk on our work, one of the leaders in my field declared, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong; I don’t know why you’re wrong, but you’re wrong.” Nonetheless, I received tenure without any apparent objection for my research supporting an unfavored view.  

That’s academic freedom in practice.

I suspect Sen. Cirino, his colleagues, and supporters don’t appreciate or realize that college faculty members have academic freedom and responsibility. Academic freedom didn’t permit me to yell ‘Fire!’ in our basement lecture hall filled to capacity with 160 Climate Change students.  

Not only does academic freedom and responsibility permit me to present the vast amount of evidence supporting our current understanding of climate change — and policies to address it — it requires me to do so. I can’t — more to the point, wouldn’t — cite SB 83 and its explicit disciplinary threats to also tell my students, “On the other hand, a climate change policy of doing nothing is equally valid.” It’s not; that’s a lie.

Named and endowed professors participate in presenting our Climate Change course on my campus; I doubt SB 83 will influence what they (or I) would present. But the course is popular and spreading to regional campuses and some community colleges. Non-tenure track instructors, not protected by academic freedom, will likely offer sections of the Climate Change course and similar courses on those campuses.  

SB 83 will inflict its damage there. It won’t ban teaching a Climate Change course. It will, however, muzzle its instructors and emasculate its educational value.  

Ohio students have freedom to learn relevant information like climate change and how it will continue to affect their lives. The Ohio legislature should not censure their right by threatening their instructors with “disciplinary sanctions” and possible termination when they teach an honest course.

Steve Rissing is professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University.



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Steve Rissing
Steve Rissing

Steve Rissing is professor emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University.