New Ohio Senate Bill Restricts Curriculum Diversity in Higher Education Institutions

Republican-led state congresses around the country have been introducing extremist pieces of legislation. Many, such as Florida’s famous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, aim to censor public education. This legislative session, Ohio is getting ready to follow suit with Ohio Senate Bill 83, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act. The bill, which is currently in committee, would limit the ability of institutions of higher education and their employees to speak about “controversial beliefs and policies” including climate change, systemic racism, and gender identity, would make it illegal for state higher education employees to strike, and would prevent institutions from accepting donations from Chinese students’ families, among other controversial initiatives. While the majority of this bill targets state institutions of higher education, parts of it would apply to Oberlin, and Oberlin students should feel obligated to stand up for our peers at other Ohio schools and for our larger community regardless. 

SB 83 defines a private institution of higher education as “a nonprofit institution holding a certificate of authorization pursuant to Chapter 1713 of the Revised Code,” a definition that applies to Oberlin. Under the bill, private institutions of higher education would not be able to receive state funding without committing to a prescribed list of affirmations. One is that they are “[c]ommitted to intellectual diversity.” The bill’s definition of intellectual diversity focuses on “perspectives that reflect the range of American opinion, but which are poorly represented on campus” — or, in other words, conservative ideals. A commitment to intellectual diversity in this context would essentially mean a commitment to incorporating more conservative viewpoints, which are often, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise harmful, into campus life. Another proposed affirmation is that private institutions will “not require diversity, equity, and inclusion courses or training for students, staff, or faculty.” Currently, Oberlin’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mandates non-discrimination training for all new students and faculty. These trainings uphold our community’s values and make Oberlin a safer place for members of marginalized communities. To end these trainings would undermine our mission as an institution. Luckily though, Oberlin only receives some government support, and almost all of its funding comes from the endowment and from private donors making the college less dependent on government funding. However, the fact that the College would have to even decide between upholding its long-standing commitment to social justice and receiving state funding is unacceptable. 

In keeping with that long-held spirit of social justice and activism, Oberlin students should not discount this bill just because our institution gets off with only minor funding cuts. We are extremely privileged to attend a well-endowed private institution, and we must use that privilege to advocate for those who do not have the same opportunities. The majority of this bill targets state schools, which are the most accessible higher education options for lower-income students and those with other barriers to education. The bill directly names concepts such as climate change, immigration policy, marriage, abortion, allyship, diversity, social justice, sustainability, systemic racism, gender identity, equity, and inclusion as controversial issues, and prevents affected institutions and their faculty from commenting on these subjects publicly or showing bias in the classroom. In 2022, there were 65,795 enrolled students at The Ohio State University alone. Under this bill, that would be 65,795 students who couldn’t legally be taught scientific findings on climate change, 65,795 students who could not legally take a gender and sexuality studies class, and 65,795 students who could not be legally taught a complete version of our nation’s history with regard to race. That number represents just one out of the 37 institutions that would fall under the scope of this bill. 

This lack of access to adequate education will harm all of us. Think of the students impacted by the bill not just as college kids or graduate students but as our future healthcare workers, mental health professionals, teachers, policymakers, or any other profession that affects our community. This bill would create a wave of professionals lacking a holistic education about race, gender, the environment, and other important issues and would send them into communities around the state, almost certainly including ones that Oberlin students interact with on a daily basis. Oberlin is not completely isolated from the world around it, and even if our roughly 3,000 students are protected by our finances and our status as a private institution, hundreds of thousands of others in the communities that we are part of will not be. As community members, we have an obligation to stand up for their right to a comprehensive education and for our community’s access to professionals who have received one. 

Finally, the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act is filled with other proposals that would, in fact, diminish the educational environment in this state. There are sections of the bill prohibiting any institutional interaction with educational institutions in China or associated countries, as well as donations from “any organization or individual who may be acting on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, including a student or a student’s family member.” This is blatant sinophobia, and it will decrease opportunities for cultural exchange by creating a hostile environment for Chinese students at affected institutions. It also sends the message that the state of Ohio is not a safe place for Chinese people in general, which, as an institution located in Ohio, we should vehemently oppose. At the same time, SB 83 states that institutions “shall not treat, advantage, disadvantage, or segregate any faculty, staff, or students by membership in groups defined by characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” So, while state institutions must discriminate against people potentially associated with China, they cannot have affinity groups, scholarships that pertain to any listed group. The bill also adds employees of state institutions of higher education to the list of public employees for whom it is illegal to strike, a move that decreases workers’ rights and, therefore, schools’ abilities to provide the best education possible. Overall, this bill will cause harm, and I urge all Oberlin students to read it for themselves and to take action against it.