Overhaul of Ohio colleges targets diversity mandates, China and requires U.S. history class

Ohio lawmakers are proposing major changes that would impact all Ohio public universities and colleges.
Ohio lawmakers are proposing major changes that would impact all Ohio public universities and colleges.

Changes to classroom rules, an end to diversity training mandates, a ban on partnerships with Chinese universities and mandatory American history courses are all inside a far-reaching bill to change how students learn and professors teach at Ohio's public colleges and universities.

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Called the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, the legislation would overhaul campus life at Ohio's 14 public universities and 23 colleges.

Course syllabuses would be posted online; professors couldn't strike during contract negotiations, no college could mandate Diversity Equity and Inclusion trainings, and professors would be evaluated on whether they cultivated classrooms free from bias.

"Let’s just say there are a lot of things on my mind about higher education, and I decided to put them all together here," said the bill's sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland. "I believe these are inherently the right things to do for enhancing the credibility of higher education and the effectiveness of higher education."

But opponents think these changes might actually chill free speech on Ohio campuses and make professors more afraid to share their views.

Here's how the legislation would impact students:

No partnerships with Chinese universities

One big way the bill would impact students is through a ban on all academic relationships between Ohio's public institutions and those located in China.

"Besides the obvious national security concerns, everyone was ready to jump on board against Russia after they invaded Ukraine," Cirino said. "In my opinion, communist China and their activities around the world are far more egregious than invading Ukraine."

And he's not alone in those concerns.

In 2022, the University of Akron ended its Confucius Institute program because the Department of Defense restricts research funding to universities that host programs sponsored by the Chinese government.

More:University of Akron to close its Confucius Institute to comply with federal grant restrictions

Cirino's bill would take that several steps further, banning all partnerships and official study abroad programs.

"If a student wants to go take classes in China, they are free to go do that, but there can’t be any agreement with an Ohio institution," Cirino said.

Existing programs, like the cooperative engineering education program between the University of Cincinnati's College of Engineering and Chongqing University, would have to end right away though.

"We’re not asking them to break a contract they currently have," Cirino said. "But we would bar in this bill a renewal of that agreement."

Mandatory American history classes

Starting in the 2026-2027 academic year, college students would have to have to pass an American government or American history class to graduate.

"The end game here is to ensure that in the non-social studies arena, like engineering, every graduate has some good knowledge of, or at least been exposed to, what I would call the good citizenship standard," Cirino said.

These courses would have the following mandatory reading list:

  • Constitution of the United States

  • Declaration of Independence

  • Minimum of five essays in their entirety from the Federalist Papers

  • Emancipation Proclamation

  • Gettysburg Address

  • Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Students who take advanced placement classes or use the College Credit Plus program could be given exemptions at the discretion of university presidents.

Publish syllabuses online

Another significant change would be a requirement for schools to publish online syllabuses for all their classes, and the documents would need to be both accessible to the public and searchable by keywords or phrases.

They would also include the following:

  • The name of the course instructor.

  • Descriptions of major course requirements, including each major assignment and exam.

  • A list of any required or recommended readings.

  • A general description of the subject matter of each lecture or discussion.

  • Biographical information on the instructor.

Cirino said that "students, taxpayers and parents should have easy access to understanding what courses are all about." But the bill doesn't include an appropriation (money) to cover the costs of getting these systems up and running.

"This is mostly information gathering and IT functions," Cirino said. "We expect the institutions to absorb into their costs."

No bias in the classroom

At the heart of the bill, in Cirino's opinion, is a push to ensure that students are free to express their views and beliefs without fear of reprisal.

Universities and colleges would have to "guarantee that faculty and staff shall allow and encourage students to reach their own conclusions about all controversial matters and shall not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view," according to a copy of the legislation obtained by the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau.

"That’s really the whole point here," Cirino said. "What we’re seeing not only in Ohio but other parts of the country is a lack of intellectual diversity."

To accomplish that goal, he would ban universities from requiring professors to take mandatory diversity training or sign documents attesting to their support for certain beliefs. Cirino would also ban universities from taking positions on the "public policy controversies of the day" and make creating an "atmosphere free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias" part of annual faculty evaluations.

"They should be training our students to analyze, evaluate, seek the facts and come to their own conclusions," Cirino said. "That’s what education should be."

Impacts for private colleges and universities

Most of the bill deals with operations at Ohio's public institutions, but some changes would apply to private colleges and universities that request money during the capital budget.

"Private colleges certainly have the freedom to run their institutions the way they would like to," Cirino said. "If you’re going to ask for capital dollars from the state, though, we should assure taxpayers that they meet some important criteria."

Schools wanting those dollars would be required to sign a document affirming the following:

  • A commitment to free speech protection for students, staff, and faculty.

  • No required diversity, equity, and inclusion courses or training.

  • It complies with the syllabus requirements as if it were a state institution.

  • It has no political and ideological litmus tests in its hiring or promotion policies.

These rules would not apply to public scholarships that students take to private universities.

Anna Staver and Laura Bischoff are reporters for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio Higher Ed bill would end DEI requirements, mandate new classes