A Provisional Victory in Ohio

Can the state AAUP conference hold the line on educational quality and labor rights?
By Sara Kilpatrick

This article is part of a series, "Dispatches from States under Legislative Attack."

Ohio Senate Bill 83 is dead. For now. The bill, which represents a conglomeration of the very worst of right-wing model legislation for higher education, had been successfully expedited and buried in the nine-thousand-page state operating budget bill, House Bill 33. However, it was ultimately removed by the conference committee before HB 33 was passed on June 30, 2023. With Republican supermajorities in both the Ohio house and senate, how did this most unlikely of outcomes materialize? And what happens when the lawmakers intent on passing an “antiwoke college bill” try to reignite SB 83 this fall?

Let’s start at the beginning. SB 83 was introduced on March 14 and encompasses more than a dozen issue areas, most of which represent an attack on faculty and an attempt to micromanage institutions of higher education. Of greatest concern to faculty members are the sections that trample academic freedom (particularly by seeking to prohibit the teaching of topics deemed “controversial,” “divisive,” or “political”), tenure, or collective bargaining rights and those that target policies related to faculty evaluations, syllabi, or workload. Of greatest concern to administrations are sections that touch on institutional speech, mission statements, and a myriad of policies that colleges and universities already manage effectively themselves. And there is an overlap of concerns in regard to restrictions on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as well as the sheer cost and complexity of implementation.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state senator Jerry Cirino, claimed in his testimony on March 22, “This bill is the result of many months of development and over a year of my own research.” However, anyone can visit the websites of the National Association of Scholars, the Manhattan Institute, and the Civics Alliance to realize that SB 83 is nothing more than a cookie-cutter, copy-and-paste, Frankenstein’s monster of model bills developed by these right-wing think tanks. Cirino seemingly spoke to no active Ohio faculty members or administrators before launching this multipronged attack on professors, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy.

Throughout the legislative process, Cirino has attempted to gaslight the public by asserting that his bill doesn’t do the many things that his bill, in fact, would do. He has accused opponents of misrepresenting the bill. He largely refuses to speak about specifics and instead discusses the bill using platitudes. He has said that the legislation has massive support but that proponents are afraid to speak out. (When has the “antiwoke” Trump crowd ever been afraid to speak out?) At the proponent hearing on the bill, he could produce only five retired faculty members, some openly affiliated with the National Association of Scholars, to rant about the alleged liberal agendas of colleges and universities, none of whom provided credible evidence of such claims.

With the help of coalition groups that include educators, labor unions, students, parents, and other concerned citizens, the Ohio AAUP conference mounted an effective two-front lobbying and public media campaign to publicize the content of the bill and how it would be “bad for students, bad for higher education, and bad for Ohio.” What Cirino had dubbed the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act we more accurately renamed the “Ohio Higher Education Destruction Act.”

We flooded the newspapers with op-eds and letters to the editor. Students engaged in protests on their campuses and at the statehouse. Local governments passed resolutions opposing the bill. We set an Ohio senate record for the highest total number of opponent testimonies submitted, and we and our allies showed up by the hundreds in the capital when it mattered the most.

We were dealing not only with SB 83 but also with its companion bill, House Bill 151, introduced just a few weeks later. The sponsors’ strategy was to advance the bills in such a way that both chambers would agree on a final version just in time for it to be shoved into the state budget bill. On May 17, the senate passed an amended substitute version of SB 83, paving the way for the house to take the ball and run, but the House Higher Education Committee couldn’t advance either SB 83 or HB 151. The senate Republicans followed through with amending the budget bill to include SB 83, but this massive higher education policy proposal became a sticking point for the budget conference committee between the house and senate. Ultimately, SB 83 was removed.

What gave the house Republicans pause about moving forward with SB 83 in the budget, especially when they were willing to move forward with enormous K–12 education changes? A few things. First, three senate Republicans, including one senator who was an original cosponsor of the bill, broke ranks with their caucus to vote against SB 83. It wasn’t a slam dunk for what typically is a unified senate Republican caucus. The second-guessing was undoubtedly a reflection of the groundswell of public opposition that we created, in addition to the fact that the board of trustees of the state’s flagship institution, Ohio State University, released a public statement of opposition to the bill on the day of the vote. SB 83 had bipartisan opposition, and it started to expose the cracks.

Second, the House Higher Education Committee heard testimony from a conservative professor who also happens to be an elected Republican official in his county. The professor warned committee members that the bill would constrict free expression; that it would threaten—not enhance—conservative viewpoints on campuses; and that the component weighting student surveys in annual faculty evaluations would very likely lead to student appeasement and grade inflation instead of rigorous courses and fair grading. Hearing from “one of their own” struck a nerve in a way that was more effective than hundreds of other testimonies saying that and more.

Third, house Republicans are less antiunion than their senate counterparts. Republicans have dominated state government in Ohio for more than a decade, and certain unions have played both sides and, in some cases, have donated heavily to Republican legislators. Our labor union coalition, We Are Ohio, drafted a letter signed by more than seventy Ohio unions opposing SB 83 and sent it to all house legislators. Many lawmakers had no idea that there even were antiunion elements in the bill. We started to hear, “Why is there antiunion language in an antiwoke college bill?” You could almost hear the screeching of the brakes.

If SB 83 is resurrected this fall by its proponents, one of whom is the chair of the House Higher Education Committee in which the bill sits, it likely will be a watered-down version that house Republicans informally floated near the end of state budget deliberations. While this latest iteration tones down some of the mindless micromanagement that the senate-passed version of the bill would have created and assuages concerns regarding threats to academic freedom and tenure, it still contains one of the most objectionable elements of the original bill: a prohibition on campus unions (faculty and staff) from striking.

Given the political realities in Ohio, we knew from the beginning that the best we might be able to do is to take as many teeth as possible out of the bill. The goal is still to “kill the bill,” but if we can, at the very least, reason with lawmakers on the antistrike language, and tweak some other components, it could be a bill that we can live with and one that won’t compromise quality and honest education for students. The legislative process is unpredictable, but we are prepared for “round two” of SB 83, if it comes.

So, what are the lessons learned up to this point? The importance of showing up and speaking out cannot be overstated. Faculty must fight for their profession and protect their institutions from this kind of political interference. Having alliances and coalitions with other constituents, especially students, is critical. Long gone are the days, if they ever existed, when lawmakers listened to facts and well-reasoned arguments. Politics is about power and relationships, and it is not enough for the AAUP to focus only on those issues that directly affect faculty members; we must be politically engaged, support our allies, and build solidarity.

We don’t yet know how this story ends, but we feel good about our “round one” victory in Ohio. We will leave nothing on the table as we continue to battle what is an attempted authoritarian takeover of public higher education in the Buckeye State. As AAUP president Irene Mulvey said in her keynote address at the 2023 AAUP Summer Institute, “Education is under attack because those who would like to see the US move toward authoritarianism recognize its power. Authoritarians live, breathe, and control with disinformation, censorship, and lies. They know—and we know—that education is the ultimate threat to their survival. . . . If we allow American higher education to be eviscerated, our democracy falls.”

Let’s keep up the fight in Ohio and across the country!

Sara Kilpatrick has served as the executive director of the Ohio AAUP conference since February 2011. She also chairs the AAUP Field Staff Association. Kilpatrick received the AAUP’s Georgina M. Smith Award in 2012 in recognition of her efforts to preserve faculty collective bargaining rights.