When I made tenure at my university, conservative non-academics said to me, “Now you have the freedom to say whatever you want in class.” While that is not exactly accurate, it’s certainly fair to say tenure does provide professors with a greater sense of security to speak their minds to their students. As universities are institutions heavily dominated by the Left, the principle of academic freedom benefits conservative faculty considerably.
It is self-destructive, therefore, for the Republican Party in my state of Ohio to be endangering academic freedom with Senate Bill 83, a reckless piece of legislation called the “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act.” The bill has now left the state Senate and has moved to the House, where the Republicans hold a supermajority. If passed there, it is likely to be signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine.
While there are some good things in SB 83, there are also many aspects of the bill that threaten academic freedom. More importantly, some of what the bill does defies the purpose of liberal education. Universities should be places for open and honest intellectual learning about difficult subject matter, but SB 83 seeks to regulate what can and cannot be taught on a public university campus.
In addition to requiring that we post our syllabi online for public scrutiny, the bill requires professors with tenure to undergo periodic tenure review. A faculty member could lose his tenure and employment if it is determined in that review that he has taught with bias. But what exactly does it mean to “teach with bias”? Every professor teaches with bias to one degree or another because we all must make decisions about what belongs in a course and what does not. As scholars, we are the experts in our fields and, frankly, expertise and bias are often inseparable.
For example, am I teaching with bias if my reading lists in my American government courses include the Federalist Papers but not the “1619 Project”? Am I teaching with bias if, in my political thought classes, I am assigning my students to read texts written only by dead white men? Am I a biased professor if, in my Israeli politics class, I frame Israel as a legitimate Jewish state rather than an occupied territory?
The bill defines “bias” as the infusion of particular points of view about “controversial belief or policy” into a course curriculum. But clearly, all the above examples could deem me guilty of infusing bias in my pedagogy. Some people would argue that I am teaching a one-dimensional perspective on race and gender. Some would say that I am teaching students what to think, rather than how to think, about many areas of current U.S. policy.
But I know that I am not. I am simply making informed decisions about how to frame my classes and use the 16-week semester to familiarize students with the most relevant materials to learn the course subject. Moreover, what can be seen on the syllabus does not necessarily reflect everything about how I approach the discussion of that material in the classroom. So, who gets to say that my teaching style is biased? Surely, the judges will be biased too.
Just who do the Republicans in Columbus think will be gauging our “bias” on these tenure review committees? I can assure them it will not be the editorial staff of American Greatness. It is most certainly going to be academic colleagues who lean Left.
And if those tenure review committees comprise nonacademics, they are not usually qualified to determine if our curricular decisions went outside the boundaries of expert bias into the realm of student indoctrination. Sometimes it is self-evident to any rational observer that a professor is propagandizing in his classroom, but in most cases, that line is very blurry.
The good part of SB 83 is the elimination of mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion “training.” It also bans hiring committees from requiring job applicants to submit diversity statements. The ideology of DEI hinders academic freedom for those who disagree with left-wing beliefs, so the sections that eliminate it are proper reprieves. But the fact that the bill has some good elements does not save it from being a largely unmitigated legislative disaster.
What Republicans in every state should be doing is figuring out ways to incentivize viewpoint diversity on university campuses. That is the solution to the problem of the academic echo chamber. Students are indeed being taught one-dimensional narratives. This predicament can be solved by expanding the assortment of perspectives to which students are exposed. We need a lot more conservative professors in the academy.
But unfortunately, an unintended consequence of SB 83 will make it significantly more difficult for conservative professors to exist.