The Ohio Statehouse Credit: The Ohio Statehouse

State Sen. Jerry Cirino believes his newly introduced legislation will bring sweeping changes to Ohio’s higher education system. In fact, he called his Higher Education Enhancement Act a “watershed” bill. Northeast Ohio college professors can’t say they agree.

“We need students to be taught how to think, not what to think,” the Republican from Kirtland said in a March 15 news release. 

The goal, according to that release, is to “protect the integrity of Ohio’s institutions of higher learning for generations to come.” There’s a focus, too, on educating students “by means of free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth.” 

But that is already happening, according to faculty members in Northeast Ohio. They’re worried the bill would bring along a host of negative consequences, from faculty leaving to making students feel unwelcome on campus. 

“The legislation is an attempt to distort what goes on in higher education for political gains,” said Rob Loftis, a philosophy professor and faculty senate president at Lorain County Community College. 

State Senate Bill 83 outlines lots of ideas in its 39 pages. One measure calls for banning any mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion programming for students, staff and faculty. A similar plan was introduced in Florida last month. 

Another would require students to complete an American history course — with mandatory readings of documents like the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address in their entirety — before graduating. 

Academic relationships with institutions in China would be largely curbed. University employees wouldn’t be allowed to strike. 

Plus, institutions would have to incorporate several affirmations into their mission statements. The list includes saying a university won’t “endorse, oppose, comment, or take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.” An exception would be made if the U.S. Congress “establishes a state of armed hostility” against a foreign country, though. 

Public two- and four-year schools would have to abide by the rules. Private institutions who want to receive specific pools of state funding are required to follow similar guidelines.  

Not everything in the bill is bad, according to Anup Kumar, a communications professor and faculty senate president at Cleveland State University. There’s a measure that would require posting syllabuses online a week before classes begin, allowing students to look before potentially enrolling. This is a good idea, he said. 

But the bulk of it, Kumar said, just feels like an attempt to micromanage universities. He points to a move wanting to revamp faculty evaluations as an example. One part of this legislation includes creating a uniform document for all students at all campuses to submit their feedback about faculty. Right now, faculty and administration craft and implement their own evaluations. 

“All universities are not the same,” he said.  “Every university has a local context.” 

Plus, if faculty feel like their academic freedom is being compromised, they might not want to stay in the state.  

“The best talent will leave,” he said. “The most competent among the faculty will leave.” 

State Sen. Cirino said he consulted with institutional leaders as the bill was constructed. Kumar said he hadn’t been contacted, and to his knowledge, neither had any other Cleveland State faculty members. 

University President Laura Bloomberg did, though. CSU officials provided the following statement to Signal Cleveland: 

“President Bloomberg met with State Senator Cirino recently to discuss a variety of higher education policy issues, including the higher education portions of the state budget as well as several concepts Senator Cirino planned to include in SB 83. We are now examining the details of the proposed bill and determining its impact on CSU. We look forward to providing our input to the Senator and continuing to work with him on issues impacting higher education, our students and the workforce needs of the state.”

Cleveland State University

Officials at Cuyahoga Community College said as far as they’re aware, neither Cirino nor his staff have spoken with the college’s leadership about SB 83. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.