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Ohio college and university instructors could be barred from teaching climate science without also including false or misleading counterpoints under a sprawling higher education bill that received its first hearing Wednesday.
Senate Bill 83, or the Higher Education Enhancement Act, seeks to police classroom speech on a wide range of topics, including climate change, abortion, immigration, and diversity, equity and inclusion — all of which would be labeled “controversial.”
On these and other subjects, public colleges and universities would need to guarantee that faculty and staff will “encourage and allow students to reach their own conclusions” and “not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view.”
Colleges and universities that receive any state funding would be barred from requiring diversity, equity and inclusion training and have to make a commitment to “intellectual diversity” that includes “divergent and opposing perspectives on an extensive range of public policy issues.”
The bill also includes provisions for annual reviews and reports, requirements for “intellectual diversity” in recruiting invited speakers, disciplinary sanctions for interfering with that diversity, a prohibition against faculty strikes, and more.
Sen. Jerry Cirino, a Republican from Kirtland and SB 83’s primary sponsor, said it was his idea to include climate change as a “controversial” belief or policy, and that he “didn’t actually consult with climate people.”
“My agenda was not to use this bill to impact energy policy,” Cirino said. However, he also said, “What I think is controversial is different views that exist out there about the extent of the climate change and the solutions to try to alter climate change.”
To say climate change is controversial is “simply wrong,” despite efforts to pretend otherwise, said Cyrus Taylor, a Case Western Reserve University physics professor whose work focuses on climate science. “The science is absolutely clear.”
Advocates fear the legislation, if passed, would further stunt the state’s progress on clean energy by marginalizing important discussions about climate change and equity.
“The bill reinforces the privilege and inequities and disparities that we see in our energy policy system,” said Dion Mensah, energy justice fellow at the Ohio Environmental Council. The “ripple effects impact us all, especially on energy policy.”
Colleges and universities are precisely the places where teachers and students, who include future policymakers, should be talking about social policies, clean energy and equitable solutions, Mensah said. In their view, that needs to include an understanding of systemic racial and environmental injustice that has led to higher pollution burdens, higher energy burdens, more health problems, and other disproportionate impacts on people of color, low-income communities, people who are disabled and other historically underrepresented groups.
“By ignoring those histories, we’re really setting ourselves up for building social policy that isn’t informed by truth, by the legacy of racism in this country,” Mensah said.
Cirino said nothing in SB 83 will ban teaching about climate change or other controversial topics. “It’s that both sides of the equation need to be understood.”
But on climate change, “both sides” arguments are often false or misleading propaganda from the fossil fuel industry and its allies.
“You’d be hard pressed these days to find a legitimate climate scientist or environmental scientist who says, ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’” said Steve Rissing, an emeritus professor at Ohio State University who taught about climate change in his biology courses, including discussions on the role of methane, climate change news and more.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released on March 20, reaffirms “that climate change is real, caused by humans and going to have dire impacts,” Taylor said.
Chilling effect on instruction
Merely saying climate change is controversial in a state statute is “going to have a chilling effect,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education. Some faculty will likely shy away from teaching about climate change science and solutions if they would have to also present arguments they know lack a factual basis or risk being dunned by SB 83’s review processes.
Another chilling effect will be to discourage talented faculty and students from coming to Ohio colleges and universities, Taylor said. “What fools would come here if they weren’t even allowed to teach what they’re working on?”
The limitations on diversity, equity and inclusion programs also mean students won’t get an adequate grounding in cultural competency, Mensah said, referring to necessary skills for understanding and interacting with people from different backgrounds.
Nor will they understand the background of ongoing injustices, “how some groups have always suffered more than others and for the benefit of others,” Mensah added. Without that, “we can’t even begin to develop policy that is well-informed.” The results will repeat what’s happened historically, “which makes it worse.”
“The equity issues on climate change are really, really important, because there’s no doubt that it’s going to hurt different communities differently,” Taylor said. And if those differences aren’t taught and considered in developing policy solutions, society “is just going to double down” on the status quo, leaving the most vulnerable communities to get hit even harder.
Cirino said he and his staff wrote most of SB 83 with help from legal counsel who put the bill in proper format, based on his own research. He acknowledged that some concepts came from the National Association of Scholars. “It’s not exactly a right-wing organization,” he said.
A March 22 statement from the organization commended Cirino for taking concepts from a model higher education code it had drafted, adding that the group “will be delighted” to publicize SB 83 throughout the nation.
Founded in 1987, the group has a history of opposing affirmative action programs and “keeping outside political influences from tainting teaching and learning on campuses,” according to DeSmog. A 2021 report from the organization is also critical about climate change being taught in grade schools and high school.
“The authors of the report are a nursing professor, someone with a master’s in space science, and someone with a Ph.D. in history,” Branch noted.
“This is just a blatant power grab for education. Period,” said Sen. Catherine Ingram, ranking minority member on the Workforce and Higher Education Committee, to which SB 83 was assigned. The bill “talks about freedom of speech, but everything in here is against certain speech.”
Cirino gave sponsor testimony on SB 83 on March 23 at a packed committee hearing where some members of the public were diverted to an overflow room. He also chairs the committee and said he hopes to move the bill along swiftly.