Cleveland Plain Dealer: Attempted legislative takeover of state universities is misguided and dangerous

State Sen. Jerry Cirino of Kirtland, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 83 — the so-called Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act — says the bill is a product of extensive research and the need to create more intellectual diversity in the state’s colleges and universities. He calls it “an urgently needed course correction for higher education in Ohio.”

But Cirino has revealed his disdain for intellectual diversity by calling the bill’s critics “clowns” and exposed his own narrow ideological motivation by accusing the state’s well-respected universities of using a “‘woke’ agenda” in faculty hiring.

Substitute SB 83 is a dangerous overreach — an attempted state legislative takeover of university hiring, course selection, tenure decisions, and governance.

Instead of “enhancing” higher education in the state, it would put in charge lawmakers and others who see university education through the same radical worldview as Cirino.

Cirino, 71, spent more than four decades in business, including turning around underperforming firms, before winning a seat as a Lake County commissioner in 2016 and then election to the state Senate in 2020.

He’s already had to amend SB 83 to fix some of its broad dictates — for instance, language barring segregation and discrimination that the American Civil Liberties Union noted in testimony would have outlawed same-sex dormitories and sports teams, fraternities and sororities, not to mention such organizations at Ohio State University as “the Association of Women Dentists, the Latino Law Students Association and the Christian Graduate Student Alliance.”

Cirino’s substitute bill also fixed language preventing required diversity, equity and inclusion training when it became evident that would bar federal money and grants,’s Laura Hancock notes.

He also took out language that would have included private colleges and universities in Ohio taking state money in some of the bill’s requirements. Hancock noted that, “Many private schools that are affiliated with faith organizations said that it would be hard to espouse their religious” beliefs while still complying with the bill.

Other overly rigid requirements were amended, too, but the changes aren’t enough.

The bill still seeks to micromanage what subjects are taught, how faculty are disciplined, and how OSU and the state’s other universities and community colleges govern themselves.

The dangers were clear to three GOP state senators who broke ranks May 17 to join the chamber’s Democrats in voting “No” on Substitute SB 83, as the Senate sent the bill to the House on a 21-10 vote.

Voting against the bill were state Sens. Nathan H. Manning of North Ridgeville, son of a longtime former teacher; Louis W. Blessing III of the Cincinnati area; and Michele Reynolds of the Columbus area.

There’s no doubt that college campuses tend to skew liberal — maybe, in part, a reflection of the youthful idealism of many students, or the outlook of those who choose to teach over more remunerative professions. That’s no reason to turn Ohio’s universities into micromanaged, authoritarian outposts.

If the narrow ideological underpinnings of Cirino’s aims in SB 83 weren’t already clear, his proposed Senate Bill 117, introduced May 3 with state Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican from Northwest Ohio, makes it obvious.

SB 117 seeks to use $13 million in taxpayer money to set up “independent academic units” at OSU and the University of Toledo, with their own bylaws, hiring and tenure authority.

The proposed Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society at OSU would be dedicated to “teaching and research in the historical ideas, traditions, and texts that have shaped the American constitutional order and society,” as the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission summarized it.

Chase, who died in 1873, was a noted anti-slavery activist, former Ohio governor and senator before becoming the sixth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s likely he would have declined this naming honor.

The proposed Institute of American Constitutional Thought and Leadership at the University of Toledo would aim, as the LSC summarizes it, for “the pursuit of creating and disseminating knowledge about American constitutional thought and to form future leaders of the legal profession through research, scholarship, teaching, collaboration, and mentorship.”

But indoctrination, not scholarship, appears to be the real motivation of all these measures.

The Ohio House should be where SB 83 goes to die — and SB 117, too, if it makes it that far. For the sake of its own future, Ohio needs to build on the academic excellence of its publicly supported colleges and universities, not crater it.