Ohio’s SB 83 and the Pall of Orthodoxies

In the well known 1967 case, Keyishian v. Board of Regents, the US Supreme Court ruled against the requirement of loyalty oaths for College and University Professors. Yet now, 56 years later, through a series of legislative efforts, aimed at both pre K-12 education and Higher Ed, right wing Republican Politicians have introduced a series of laws and bills which threaten to return higher ed to the McCarthyist period. While such bills allegedly purport to further cause of debate, openness and academic freedom, in reality they threaten to erode the protections for academic freedom and debate that the right wing Republican politicians often claims to champion. Ironically, these laws also often come with what appear to be efforts to create safe spaces for conservative children. The latest salvo in the right’s war of position has been fired in the State of Ohio, in the form of SB 83. It is a no good, horrible, terrible, awful bill. It’s passage will effectively make academic freedom and due process a dead letter in Ohio’s State Universities. It will make it nearly impossible for its faculty to teach and for its students to learn. It will result in a great sucking sound of University and College faculty and students exiting the State of Ohio. It’s only saving grace is that if it were to become law, its maze of contradictory statements and vague sweeping language will likely result in its being ruled unconstitutional. Yet the spectre of the pall of othodoxies is Janus faced: it has a right side and a left side.As is often the case, the right wing spectre haunts the University from without, while the left spectre haunts us from within.

Let’s begin with an effort to understand exactly how horrible Ohio’s SB 83 actually is. The bill has been put forward in part as an effort to protect campuses from the pall of orthodoxy by banning the use of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) statements as litmus tests in hiring, promotion and tenuring decisions. This provision, taken by itself, has merit. And if the bill stopped there it would be worthy of public debate. But in truly Orwellian fashion the bill goes on to actually attempt to limit or ban any kind of critical academic discussion on race, and many other issues. Similarly, the bill attempts to force even handed treatment of controversial topics in classrooms without regard to actual academic merits of such discussions in the classroom. It will create a regime in which Professors’ syllabae would be subject to constant public monitoring, in spite of the fact that all such syllabae are already public records in Ohio and can generally be had for the mere asking. I take some comfort in the fact that were the bill to pass, someone, somewhere, might actually read and pay attention to my syllabus. While the concepts of academic freedom and tenure provide Professors protection against unscrupulous administrators, including against unscrupulous DEI bureaucrats, SB 83 will in actuality weaken existing protections by legislating annual reviews and post tenure reviews of Professors. Again, we should note that such mechanisms in various forms already exist. Worse yet, it will lead to mob enforcement by requiring student evaluations to be a substantive criterion for annual evaluation and for the results of student evaluations to be posted online. None of this will embolden Professors to uphold standards of academic rigor or engage their students in wide ranging classroom discussion. Instead, to protect their jobs, those few Professors who choose to stay in Ohio will pander to the lowest common denominator in every classroom. They will be sure to avoid offending all students, regardless of the students’ ideological, gender, class, ethnic or regional background. They will be sure to consistently attempt to please administrators and simultaneously satisfy those who will appoint themselves the public guardians of University syllabae. As I said above, it will make it impossible to Professors to teach and for students to learn.

Yet the very real clear and present danger that is posed to both academic freedom and academic integrity by Ohio’s SB 83 and other similar legislation around the country should not blind us to the threat that is posed by DEI bureaucracies and wokeism. In stating this, I hasten to emphasize that my criticism is not directed against academic discussion of Critical Race Theory. Not is it aimed against the worthy goal of Universities looking like America. How much, or how little a role affirmative action should play in this pursuit is a worthy topic of debate. If DEI were simply about increasing representation or promoting more actual, open dialogue and debate about the meaning of terms such as “social justice” and “equity”, and if “wokeism” was really just a simple matter of heightened sensitivity and good manners, it would no doubt still attract hostility from some on the right. But it would be otherwise non-controversial in the US in general, in higher ed, and in pre K-12. That is not however, what DEI is about-at least not in its current form.

Contrary to the views of many of my colleagues, I do not agree that the more extreme version is a figment of the right’s fevered imagination. Rather, the more extreme version is the one that for the most part prevails on College and University campuses. That there is an ideology at play here, that this ideology is political and that it effectively short circuits complex, lengthy debates in the social sciences and elsewhere is evidenced in the first instance by the multiple glossaries (for example see here, here, my own University’s Glossary) published by DEI offices across the country. These debates moreover, are not just debates in the public. DEI offices often take and promote stands on issues that are in fact points of debate amongst left wing scholars. Taken in isolation, such glossaries are in and of themselves harmless and might engender useful discussion if they were put forward as items for genuine, open discussion and debate. Instead, they come with the imprimatur of University bureaucracies and bureaucrats, backed by official institutional support and endorsement, and as settled. Yet as just one example of how how deeply ideological, and how sloppily these glossaries treat complex debates in the Social Sciences is evidenced in their definitions of, and endorsement of equity over equality. The matter being officially defined, there is no further need to bother with the complex arguments of Johnathan Rawles , Amartya Sen, or many other foundational figures in the Social Sciences. The DEI glossaries have spoken, and it is over.

This much even, might be thought of as merely bothersome, and if it stopped there, and one could simply close one’s door and carry on in the tradition of academic debate and inquiry and ignore the nonsense, the matter could be ignored, save for the misdirection of scarce resources. But simple disagreement and a choice to ignore ideological driven cant and dogma is not always an option. Institutional DEI plans often call for extending DEI into every corner and facet of the curriculum, requiring the addition of DEI statements to syllabae and adherence to the DEI perspective not just in the Social Science or English and Humanities curriculum, but increasingly in the STEM disciplines as well. Nor does it stop there. Increasingly, Universities have taken to demanding of applicants, and sometimes existing faculty, that they put in writing their enthusiastic endorsement of cant and dogma. As multiple guidelines make clear, it is not sufficient for one to simply affirm support for treating all people in one’s classroom with equal respect or agreeing to conform to University policies against harassment. Nor can one propose alternate definitions of diversity: most such statements require one to demonstrate “competency” and agreement with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as defined of course, by the campus DEI office. This demand for professed ideological agreement is also casting a pall of orthodoxy on college campuses.

What then can, or should we do? In the first instance, it is necessary to defeat SB 83. We can only do this by building as broad a coalition as possible. To say this does not mean that it is easy. Higher Ed is not well understood by the general public and it is even less understood by the Ohio State Legislature. Few of us have the time and resources to make ourselves be effectively heard, though there are multiple organizations which we can contribute to. Both the Ohio AAUP and Ohio Education Association have worked to halt SB 83. Though I suspect tha the origin of language on Faculty Evaluations and prohibitions of Faculty Strikes in SB 83 may originate in the collection of Ohio University Presidents as represented by the Inter University Council, thus far, they appear disposed to oppose SB 83. This is the opposite of the situation some years ago when the Inter University Council actively lobbied the Ohio legislature to avoid bargaining with their own faculty and then denied responsibility for doing so. If we wish to stop SB 83 however, we must speak credibly. Pretending that DEI is a set of innocuous bromides intended to simply create equality of opportunity and better representation on campus, when the stated purpose of DEI is to go beyond this, undermines our credibility. If our goal is truly to protect academic freedom, then we should oppose all efforts to impose a pall of orthodoxy on campuses. Thus far, the only organization which has been truly consistent in defendng the open exchange of ideas and imposing all palls of orthodoxies on college campuses is FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights). In the interim, Universities can adopt and adhere to two principles that will truly protect academic freedom: these are the Kelven Report and the Chicago Statement. The Kelvin Report states that Universities should not take institutional stands on controversial political issues while the Chicago statement affirms their historical commitment to open exchange of ideas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s