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GOP Planned to Destroy Public Education in Ohio. We Defeated Them — for Now.

SB 83 is part of a larger right-wing goal seeking to muzzle any and all education about structural oppression.

Ohioans invested in the integrity and well-being of public universities across the state breathed a sigh of relief in late June after Ohio Senate Bill 83 — Republicans’ big push to overhaul higher education across the state — failed in its bid to become law before the summer recess began.

A few of the bill’s lowlights — in its original and revised forms — include:

  • banning and regulating how educators teach topics or use concepts that the GOP specifies as “controversial” or “ideological,” including climate change, structural racism, allyship, gender identity, diversity, foreign policy, abortion, immigration policy, marriage, and concepts like oppressor/oppressed;
  • conducting surveillance (including “post-tenure review”) of faculty deemed to be “indoctrinating” students;
  • banning strikes at universities and restricting faculty voices;
  • banning mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings and programs; and
  • imposing some boycotts on universities (banning relations with Chinese institutions) while forbidding others (no “boycotts, divestment, sanctions” campaigns, clearly referring to the Palestine solidarity movement, BDS).

SB 83 teems with contradictions. Universities are told not to take positions on matters of public debate — unless they want to support a U.S. war. Ohio’s public colleges are required to teach a U.S. history course including specific texts, but one of those texts, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” contains exactly the kind of critique of systematic racism and language about oppressor and oppressed that SB 83 marks as “controversial.”

As I said in a press conference on April 19, SB 83 is the “real-life Thought Police and Big Brother fictionalized in George Orwell’s 1984.”

While quite aware that the fight to defend public education is far from over — and that this legislature is responsible for many atrocious, anti-trans and anti-democratic bills and resolutions this spring — we are celebrating today, especially faculty, students, unions and community members who value academic freedom, Black/ethnic/gender studies, workers’ and union rights, diversity and social justice, and freedom from government surveillance.

SB 83 is not permanently defeated, and its main sponsor State Sen. Jerry Cirino has promised it will come back. As the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) explained, we will have to keep our eyes on SB 83 and related bills until this legislative cycle ends in December 2024. In fact, one of these bills — SB 117, also sponsored by Cirino — was slipped into the state budget and, as our AAUP-Ohio State statement on a previous version of the bill explained, will impose conservative think tanks on several Ohio universities while circumventing established processes of shared governance.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that despite its overwhelming majority in this heavily gerrymandered state, despite the GOP’s loud and bullying propaganda over the last few months, slandering professors and dismissing students who spoke out repeatedly, SB 83 has failed to pass.

We’ll gladly take the “W” for this round and get ready for whatever is coming up.

We’ll take satisfaction in the fact that several hundred faculty, students, unions and community members stepped up and spoke out over the last few months — contributing to the defeat of SB 83.

We will assert that collectively, through our heartfelt and evidence-based testimonies, our rallies and mobilizations, our wide networks and deep organizing, and our steady presence in op-eds and media interviews, we transformed the public narrative about SB 83.

Simply put, we made it impossible for anyone to read anything about SB 83 without registering that the people of Ohio are vehemently opposed to the bill — especially Ohio students, who have come out strongly against it in evidence-based testimonies, op-eds and rallies.

As Ohio State student and organizer Clovis Westlund said poignantly about what it feels like to see politicians destroy higher ed in Ohio, “We are left to sit with clenched jaws and white knuckles, clutching the armrests at our sides, while legislators ignore harms we see so plainly.”

Our broad coalition made it known that what was at issue here was not “intellectual diversity” or “saving students from indoctrination,” but a battle between fundamentally opposite views on academic freedom, on the purpose of public education, on the government’s role in deciding the content and methods of education, on workers’ rights, on basic values like diversity and inclusion, and — at the very root of it — on what U.S. history is about, what U.S. society looks like and where it’s headed.

An Attempt to Roll Back the Gains of Protest

When we look at SB 83 in the larger context of the GOP legislative agenda — in Ohio and elsewhere — we can see that it is part of a much larger political project.

In my March 16 op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch, I made two arguments about what this project is.

In our immediate context, in this Trump/DeSantis era, it’s part of the “anti-woke” current — in which “woke” has been “demonized as a cover for their racist, anti-feminist, anti-trans, homophobic, anti-union, anti-immigrant, fake free speech agenda.”

But zoom out a little more and this assault on education is one part of what the white conservative movement has been trying to do since Reagan, which is to roll back the gains of the movements and upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s — including ethnic studies and gender studies in universities. Indeed, the departments of African American and African Studies and the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at my university, Ohio State, have their origins in demands made by a mass student strike in 1970, part of a national wave of demands for change.

Thus, I argued: “Ohio Senate Bill 83 isn’t just trying to roll back a few programs, but an entire legacy of protest and transformation. And by banning strikes at public universities and bringing greater political surveillance over faculty teaching and retention, the bill wants to undercut our very ability to resist such draconian changes in policy.”

While many colleagues and even administrators have appreciated these arguments, the right wing used it to further attack our opposition — revealing, in the process, the utter disdain for faculty that’s lying just under the surface of a so-called concern for education.

For instance, the Ohio GOP’s Senate communications director went so far as to suggest that since I wrote such an op-ed, I probably teach my classes with no regard to “diversity of thought” and thus “make the perfect case for passing SB 83.” Besides knowing nothing about what goes in my classroom, my stellar teaching record as I enter year 20 at Ohio State, and how I and my colleagues always open up spaces for students of all backgrounds and ideas, this tweet is an example of the witch-hunt politics that surrounds SB 83.

Cirino himself was evidently so set off by our op-eds that he lashed out at me and my colleagues, calling us “hysterical” and saying my portrayal of the Republican agenda was an “offensive assertion.”

Drawing on age-old racial tropes about people of color and literacy, and exuding what Koritha Mitchell has termed “know-your-place aggression,” Cirino postulated that “Jani didn’t read the bill or he is an English professor who doesn’t understand plain English.” But as an article in the Columbus Free Press pointed out, Cirino’s attack was itself full of misreadings of my argument.

SB 83 exists in a larger right-wing political universe that seeks to muzzle any and all education about race/gender and structural oppression, demonize professors, target trans people, eradicate abortion and ban labor organizing and strikes.

All of this has a cost on the ground. The targeting of China in bills like these, as Jona Hilario from the Ohio AAPI feminist group OPAWL brilliantly argued at the SB 83 hearings, directly connects to and encourages anti-Asian racism in the U.S.

The GOP’s racist, anti-feminist, anti-trans, homophobic, anti-union and anti-immigrant agenda is plain for all to see. And this has nothing to do with protecting free speech, intellectual diversity or academic freedom.

SB 83 Inflicted Pain Even Without Passing

The assault on Ohio colleges and universities has been incessant. With the introduction of SB 83 in the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee in mid-March, right-wing politicians led by Cirino have been making a big push to use the power of the government to limit academic freedom, control what faculty and students learn and teach in the classroom, and give a crutch to conservative ideas that, apparently, aren’t able to thrive on their own merits.

Keeping pace with extremist politicians in other states like Florida and Texas, Ohio GOP leaders were taking every opportunity to denounce professors as “indoctrinating” students; to vilify diversity, equity and inclusion programs; and to label all topics and faculty they didn’t like as “controversial” and worthy of surveillance.

Lying directly in the faces of the people of Ohio, Cirino and his pals repeatedly claimed to having no agenda except protecting “intellectual diversity” — even while clearly being part of a nationwide GOP legislative effort and putting forward a copy-cat bill formulated by a right-wing think tank, the National Association of Scholars.

As intended, SB 83 has had a chilling effect on university life — especially among lecturers and untenured faculty members, graduate students teaching classes and looking for jobs, and students and faculty of marginalized groups.

It’s impossible to describe the cloud that’s been sitting over university faculty over the last few months — at faculty meetings, in private conversations, and in advising meetings with students who feel maybe they made a wrong choice in coming to Ohio to learn.

Building solidarity while also taking time to raise debates and questions within our own movement is crucial.

This isn’t the first time that educators have been targeted — and those of us from marginalized groups are quite familiar with the feeling of being scapegoated by politicians. But SB 83 made it as if it’s not enough to achieve in your field, to teach excellent classes and to do the day-to-day work of making the university run. You also have to walk the line of ideological affiliation with the government — even at the risk of losing your job.

But while Florida and Texas politicians have largely succeeded in their nefarious schemes, the Ohio GOP was stymied even in a legislature that it dominates.

Initially it looked like Republicans’ strategy would work: loudly repeating their propaganda in the press, belittling those who spent their time and effort to testify, and simply letting their majority in this highly gerrymandered state carry the day.

Despite record numbers of written and in-person testimonies from faculty, students and community members at the hearing in mid-April — leading to a historic seven-and-a-half hour session — despite creative and energetic rallies, including a mock funeral for higher education, organized by students from around Ohio, and despite statements against SB 83 from university officials like the Ohio State University Board of Trustees, SB 83 easily passed out of the committee and sailed through the GOP-dominated Senate.

But the House had other plans, as HB 151, the companion bill to SB 83, didn’t even get out of the Higher Education Committee — despite multiple efforts by its chair, State Rep. Tom Young, to squelch public testimonies about the bill.

The GOP pushed forward again in June, now trying to sneak all of SB 83 into the massive, 9,000+ page state budget bill. The Senate, once again, obliged and passed the budget bill with SB 83 intact.

But again SB 83 hit a roadblock in the House, as the final negotiations to reconcile Senate and House budget bills led to the dropping of SB 83.

Why did the legislation fail twice in the House, which also has a GOP majority even though it’s less stark than in the Senate?

While avoiding undue speculation, we are certain our record-breaking numbers of opponent testimony and incessant media presence played a central role, as well as the public statement of the OSU Board, and union pushback to SB 83’s ban on strikes — including a letter from the We Are Ohio coalition, signed by 75 unions, to Ohio House Speaker Jason C. Stephens.

Preparing for the Next Fight

Victories like this can often leave us puzzled. How relieved can we be when we know that SB 83 will probably be brought back to life in September? What about the fact that Cirino’s SB 117 — intended as a foothold for conservative ideologues — actually did pass as part of the state budget?

And how much did our activities influence the outcome anyway, since legislators so quickly ignored our efforts and voices and went ahead with what they wanted to do?

As with many movements, so many factors are involved that we never know exactly what worked and what did not. But we can say, definitively, that if we do not build an opposition, and if we allow the right to exclusively dominate the narrative and media waves, we will never make progress. There are things that we did well in the SB 83 fight and will continue to build on — although we know, from the experiences of our Florida and Texas colleagues, that even when we organize well and fight hard against these bills, we don’t have complete control of our destiny.

As a contribution to our collective, national efforts against the right-wing assault on public education, I want to share four aspects of our organizing that helped us to be effective fighters against SB 83 — whether the bill had passed or not. To be clear: I am writing from my perspective as president of the AAUP chapter at Ohio State and a faculty member with all kinds of skin in the game. I am not addressing the student organizing, which was monumental to this fight and, contrary to right-wing propaganda, developed independently of faculty.

1. Breadth: Networking Across Groups and Across the State

At the core of our mobilization was the development of a strong collaboration between various groups with an investment in fighting SB 83, drawing together people with a knowledge of the legislative process who had a real motor for engagement, coordination and action. The attacks on K-12 education in previous years had already pulled many of us together, and we built on those relationships.

Setting up chats, Zoom calls and in-person meetings, we created an infrastructure around opposing SB 83 so we could speak with one voice, create platforms to share information and connect people across the state and coordinate opposition.

Organizations included Honesty for Ohio Education, itself affiliated with dozens of groups; the Ohio Conference of the AAUP, including statewide union and advocacy chapters; the Ohio Students Association and Ohio Student Activist Alliance; Policy Matters Ohio; the ACLU; We Are Ohio; Save Ohio Higher Ed; and many unions, including the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Education Association. These groups are directly linked with many others — including the Ohio AFL-CIO — who took public positions against SB 83, testified at the statehouse and showed up in other ways.

2. Mobilization: Creating Public Forums to Inform, Discuss and Train

But connecting organizations and leaders was not enough — we needed those who were directly targeted to participate and act. One important approach was holding public forums with speakers, information, discussion and trainings about how to give testimony allowed us to turn people out and take up questions and debates. In fact, mixing speakers with different backgrounds and knowledge (faculty and student voices, lawyers, experts on legislative hearings etc.) strengthened our own coalition efforts even as we brought in new activists. I want to underline that every time a student spoke it completely transformed the space — because it represented a direct rejection of the politicians who supposedly were acting in their name but never consulted them in the first place.

I want to draw attention to one forum we held as AAUP-Ohio State just before the big mobilization for the April 19 hearings. Since a Save Ohio Higher Ed training for the hearings had happened the previous week, we had the space to focus on some of the wider contexts and questions around SB 83.

On the one hand, the forum was a place to come together and build solidarity. For instance, we had a faculty union leader from Florida speak about what they had experienced and how they were fighting back. This helped to remind us that we were part of a national movement that was taking on a right-wing agenda that extended beyond Ohio. This helped us get out of our own bubble, as it were, by giving us a wider perspective of the problem, understanding we needed to be ready for a long fight and that we had allies across the country.

On the other hand, the forum was also a place to take on questions and debates. Speaking both as AAUP chapter president and director of Asian American Studies at Ohio State, for example, I was able to raise questions about a false binary we sometimes fell into, often unconsciously, in which fighting SB 83 was either about fighting for academic freedom for everyone or about defending Black/ethnic/gender studies or DEI.

It is certainly true that bills like SB 83 target all faculty, regardless of racial, gender, national and other identities, disciplinary specificities or political position, by giving politicians undue power in determining what can be taught, how it can be taught, how faculty performance would be reviewed and how we can voice dissent. As such, our appeal and messaging ought to be oriented toward all faculty, including faculty who might themselves be skeptical of DEI initiatives and disinterested in Black/ethnic/gender studies.

At the same time, we cannot minimize the specific attacks on DEI and Black/ethnic/gender studies. We need to recognize that this general attack on professors is predicated on the targeting of particular fields and disciplines, on the people who teach them and on the students and faculty whose histories and narratives are being taught within those classes.

The evidence for this specific targeting is everywhere — especially since Donald Trump launched an attack on the 1619 Project, critical race theory, “Marxist doctrine,” and the like in September 2020 with the short-lived “1776 Commission.”

Today, Republicans’ repeated use of the phrase “anti-woke” when defending bills like SB 83, their targeting of critical race theory, their demonization of China, their “don’t say gay” and anti-trans bills, their critique of gender studies departments, their ban on language like “oppressor and oppressed” in classrooms, their repeated fearmongering that “leftists” have taken over academia and their insistence on history classes that teach about the glorious past of the U.S. — all of this points to a classic politics of scapegoating that goes after specific groups, ideas and individuals and uses them as a wedge to open up a wider attack on all of us.

Rejecting an either/or approach to taking on SB 83 is part of fighting the divide-and-conquer strategies of the racists and hatemongers.

Building solidarity while also taking time to raise debates and questions within our own movement is crucial for strengthening ourselves.

3. Outside/Inside: Changing the Narrative With Op-eds, Interviews and Testimonies

Partly as a declaration to the right but partly as a challenge to ourselves, I said in my March 16 op-ed that Ohio faculty will not take this lying down — that we would fight hard against SB 83.

It was absolutely incredible to see the passion, intensity, knowledge and clarity of Ohio faculty as they generated multiple opinion pieces, attended forums, wrote hundreds of testimonials and came out to the statehouse on April 19 to speak truth to power. Much of this effort was spontaneous, driven by the dire conditions themselves, as well as sheer anger. But because we were well-organized, our groups were able to become the vehicles and conduits for faculty power.

As someone who, for the majority of my nearly 30 years as an activist and organizer, has protested outside the statehouse rather than inside it, I tend to be skeptical of legislative hearings and their ability to make change. But I learned a lot through this process and how these hearings — sometimes small, internal affairs involving a few people — can be transformed into opportunities to build much larger movements, involving masses of people and shifting public consciousness.

Undoubtedly, beating back the right-wing agenda is going to require mobilizations on a very large scale. Struggles on campus and in the streets won ethnic and gender studies in the 1960s and 1970s; we will probably need similar upheavals today to defend those historic achievements. But such movements can grow in conjunction with, and not necessarily in opposition to, legislative work — if we have an orientation towards grassroots organizing.

4. Depth: Connecting Mobilizing With Organizing

Mobilizing for specific actions, like the April 19 hearings, and specific bills, like SB 83, is absolutely essential. But it’s when we have stronger organizations that we actually can keep building for the long haul.

Organizations were the prerequisite for getting people out against SB 83 and turning their anger into action — and growing and strengthening these groups and networks will be necessary as we move forward. At AAUP-Ohio State, to give the example I know best, our SB 83 work has led directly to the rise of new leadership, a sharpening of our chapter infrastructure, increased one-on-one conversations with our colleagues and a larger and more robust group.

A reporter asked me at one point whether the chilling effect of SB 83 had made faculty less interested in the AAUP and pessimistic about organizing. I laughed and said no, quite the opposite. People are so angry that they have come to us asking how they can get involved, and immediately making suggestions to improve the work.

SB 83 disoriented us, no doubt. It brought the national, right-wing attack on higher education to our doorstep, demonized us and threatened our ability to educate Ohio students the best way we can, without the interference of politicians.

But SB 83 also pushed us into motion. Its defeat has given us hope and confidence in our own collective strength.

We may have to fight SB 83 again. And we’ll be right here when the time comes.

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