Illustration of graudates in cap and gown

A Message from Chancellor Groves Regarding the Attacks by State Legislatures on Higher Education, Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Democracy 

I know many of you are watching with alarm as state legislatures around the country are taking aim at higher education with unprecedented attacks on academic freedom and freedom of speech, bans on DEI training, gag orders on what can and cannot be taught, and much more. Florida’s legislature and governor started the frenzy last year, and many other Republican-controlled states have joined the circus.  

Ohio is the most recent battleground state, with the Ohio Senate’s passage last week of SB83. The bill, known as the “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act,” would enact many of these policies restricting academic freedom and the pursuit of justice in higher education. The bill is expected to sail through the Ohio House soon and eventually be signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine.

The legislation currently affects only public universities, but it will have profound negative impacts on the state, business, and citizens, especially those from historically marginalized populations. One of the strengths of American higher education is its institutional diversity and we must understand that an attack on one type of institution is truly an attack on us all. Ohio is the historic home of Antioch University, and the cradle of the great western expansion of American private, nonprofit higher education in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It is right and appropriate that we pay attention and that we stand up and be heard.

While the bill is ostensibly directed at “enhancing” Ohio higher education by promoting “intellectual diversity,” — whatever that means, in reality it is intellectual fascism aimed at exorcizing dreaded “wokeism” and “indoctrination” from higher education, especially education about issues of social, racial, environmental and economic justice, the very things that are core to an Antioch education. It is further evidence that our democracy is under attack in perverse and perilous ways.

I think it’s important to look at the details of this attack on academic freedom, but first I want to talk about the antidemocratic forces that have brought us to this point. If you are wondering how a bill like this could pass in a state that has traditionally been viewed as purple, the answer is simple: rampant and uncontrolled gerrymandering of state and Congressional legislative districts that has resulted in one party reliably controlling a supermajority of seats. In the last Presidential election, 53% of Ohio voters voted for Donald Trump, while over 45% voted for Joseph Biden. That’s a good reflection of the current political makeup of the Ohio electorate. Yet, in the Ohio Senate today 79% of the members are Republican while only 21% are Democrats. The Ohio House and the Ohio Congressional delegation are similarly lopsided in favor of Republicans. It’s due to this extreme gerrymandering and the seizure of near-absolute power that the legislature can pass virtually anything it wants, without regard to what the majority of voters might support. It was true with the recent abortion legislation in Ohio, and it’s true now with this bill.

Very few Ohio legislative districts are competitive, and representatives at all levels have little fear of losing re-election other than perhaps in a primary, where often these right-wing representatives face challenges from even more extreme opponents. Stamping out alleged “wokeism” in higher education is a DeSantisian ploy for incumbents to build their resumes to win their next primaries, to get to the right of other far right candidates. These bills have absolutely nothing to do with “enhancing” higher education.

The Ohio public has long been fed up with this kind of gerrymandering. That’s why, in 2015, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the Ohio Constitution prohibiting partisan gerrymandering, and created a redistricting commission that would draw nonpartisan general assembly district maps. In 2018, voters again amended the constitution, this time to extend the prohibition on gerrymandering to Congressional districts. Yet the redistricting commission became controlled 5-2 by Republicans, who following the 2020 census drew new maps that were even more extremely gerrymandered than the previous maps. As a result, in 2022 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the new maps were unconstitutional and directed the state legislature change them. The state legislature promptly ignored this directive, and elections have continued under the old maps. 

I think it’s worth reading what the Ohio Supreme Court remark in its decision invalidating the post-2020 maps:

Gerrymandering is the antithetical perversion of representative democracy. It is an abuse of power….When the dealer stacks the deck, the house usually wins. That perhaps explains how a party that generally musters no more than 55 percent of the statewide popular vote is positioned to reliably win anywhere from 75 percent to 80 percent of the seats in the Ohio Congressional delegation… The General Assembly produced a plan that is infused with undue partisan bias and that is incomprehensibly more extremely biased than the 2011 plan that it replaced. This is not what Ohio voters wanted or expected when they approved constitutional amendments … to end partisan gerrymandering in Ohio for good. (League of Women Voters of Ohio et al. v. Ohio Redistricting Commission, 168 Ohio St.3d 522 (2022)).  

Unfortunately, other than declaring the current maps unconstitutional, there is no remedy that the Ohio Supreme Court can fashion that will force the state legislature to comply with the constitutional mandates. And the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 decided that it has no jurisdiction over partisan-gerrymandering claims because they present “political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” (Rucho v. Common Cause139 S.Ct 2484 (2019)). So the supermajority of conservative justices on the Supreme Court have simply thrown up their hands, leaving to the states the ability to gerrymander the hell out of districts with zero judicial oversight. 

So that’s the very sorry and dystopian context for this bill. As Marilou Johanek aptly put it in the Ohio Capital Journal, this effort on the part of Ron DeSantis and his copycats across the country to “crush thinking on race, gender, culture, and history—that doesn’t comport with theirs—is truly the stuff of totalitarian nightmares.” She goes on to write that SB83 “is nothing more than a manufactured imperative to present a tough-guy, own-the-libs MAGA front.”

Let me walk you through the bill, which is over 100 pages long, spelling out the major provisions and giving you my take on the motives and impact. 

  1. Each of the 14 state universities in Ohio must adopt a policy prohibiting any mandatory programs or training regarding diversity, equity, or inclusion. There is no definition of what is meant by DEI education, but it likely includes any formal or informal effort at educating students, staff, or faculty about the history of racism in the U.S., the impact on populations of color today, the systemic ways in which the caste system continues to occur in our society and universities, the different types of diversity in society, the ways to appreciate the differences among co-workers and students, or the strategies to enhance communications and understanding of others to improve the work and learning environment. These are American values also shared by every major religion in the world. But, state legislatures have decided such education is inherently “woke” and violates the rights of employees or students to be “comfortable,” and unencumbered by any sense of personal responsibility to bring about change. State universities are essentially being gagged on issues of race and equality. 
  2. No faculty or staff shall seek to “inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view on students” and must ensure the fullest degree of “intellectual diversity” in the classroom. Students must be allowed to come to “their own conclusions” without influence from faculty. Violations of these prohibitions can result in discipline including termination from employment. Yet, the line between “inculcating” and teaching is not at all clear. Nor is it clear what it means to “ensure intellectual diversity.”  Are students entitled to ignore well accepted science and have their own “alternative facts?”  Can faculty challenge those alternative facts, or grade a student for relying on bad or discredited science, or does that infringe on “intellectual diversity?” Can a medical student at Ohio State University “make up her own mind” and refuse to educate patients about the importance of vaccines because she is entitled to assert her “intellectual diversity” as an anti-vaxxer? Is an environmental science professor prohibited from teaching the science of climate change because it offends a student’s “intellectual diversity” about the impact of greenhouse gases? All of this overly broad and vague language is intentional as a means of intimidating faculty. As the Board of Trustees of the Ohio State University warned in their recent statement opposing the bill, “this provision will destroy the academic rigor of Ohio universities limiting classroom dialogue and debate and limiting the ability of the faculty to challenge students to think deeply and analytically.”  The enforcement provisions will chill the faculty and cause them to “avoid, rather than encourage, stimulating and challenging classroom discussion, for fear of complaints.”
  3. No institution may endorse or oppose any “controversial belief or policy,” any “specified concept,” or any “specified ideology,” which expressly includes any policy on climate change,  voting rights, diversity, equity and inclusion, marriage equality, abortion rights, immigration policy, and more. This is an incredible list of topics that impacted institutions would be muzzled from speaking out about. While not mentioned specifically, the language would likely prohibit speech around gun control and antiracism. As the ACLU of Ohio points out in its Opponent Testimony to SB83, “[T]here is not a single topic on the planet capable of not being the subject of ‘political controversy.’  I agree. If drag queens can become the most recent wedge issue in the American culture wars, anything can be next.”
  4. The statute expressly permits an institution to make statements supporting the Constitution, the laws of the United States or the State of Ohio, national holidays, and the American flag. Just don’t say anything opposing the law of the United States. One apparently cannot take positions that are critical of the government, critical of legislation, critical of court decisions, or supporting any flag but the American flag. If Antioch was a public university, my letter today decrying the evils of gerrymandering would violate the law; my letter in October recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, would violate the law; my letter excoriating the insurrectionist and coup plotters of January 6, 2021 would violate the law. My letters recognizing Pride Month, or Women’s History Month, or Black History Month, would violate the law. My letter today challenging this SB83 would violate the law. The bottom line is that state universities may wave the American flag, but they may not be in any way critical of the current paradigms of power and privilege. 
  5. The Chancellor of the Ohio Department of Education is directed to develop a course, of not fewer than 3 credit hours, on American History or American Government, which includes mandatory reading of the entire U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, five essays from the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, and, surprisingly to their credit, the entire letter from the Birmingham jail written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While there is nothing wrong with studying these texts, and indeed I recommend it, to do so under the strictures of the rest of law will mean encountering these texts without context, because any sources critical of those founding documents—and there is so much to be critical of—would be a violation of the other provisions of SB83. This is not about teaching critical thinking skills. It’s a parody of high school civics, glorifying American history while actively ignoring the many flaws and human atrocities along the way.  
  6. And perhaps one of the most ill-defined proscriptions in the bill: no state institution shall cause any individual “to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, or that they bear any responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, or sex.” This is nothing less than the codification of white fragility. 
  7. All state institutions must issue an annual report regarding “statistics on the academic qualifications of accepted and matriculating students broken down by race and sex.” The report must be accessible on the University’s website for anyone in the general public to see. This is a transparent effort to ensure that no institution engages in any form of affirmative action in their admissions process.
  8. Finally, the law seriously erodes the collective bargaining rights of all employees at state universities by taking away their right to strike. This includes both faculty and staff unions. Any impasse in bargaining must be resolved through the Ohio statutory process used with other non- strike-permissive employees like police and fire personnel, which ends with binding arbitration. This provision is an obvious attempt to strip power away from these workers—power that they might use to resist their being gagged under this law. To their credit, our faculty union sent a letter to several Ohio senators on the day of the vote urging them to vote “no” on the bill. To no one’s surprise, it passed by a huge margin along party lines.

So, what do we do? My personal view is that we must first do all that we can to make Antioch the beacon of justice we want it to be through the curriculum and programs we deliver, through who we serve and how, through what we stand for, and through how we use our institutional voice to advance social, racial and environmental justice. We also must use the opportunity of the affiliation to work with our friends from Otterbein to build a national system that stands tall for inclusion, equity, diversity, and democracy. 

Finally, remember that the only sure way to stem this tide of anti-intellectualism and intolerance is to change our representatives in legislatures, statehouses and Congress. This can only be done through the voting process, and we should all, in our own ways, be figuring out how we can best influence that process. We should be doing everything in our power to be sure to “get out the vote.”

At the same time, we need to fight tooth and nail against antidemocratic gerrymandering schemes and the captured U.S. Supreme Court that backs them. We need to support candidates who uphold our values and who will fight for them. We need to create robust civic education at every level, from K-12 to doctoral programs. Each one of us must determine our own strategy, always recalling Dr. King’s word: “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.”  And Antioch University must do all it can as an institution of higher learning to strengthen democracy and fight efforts to silence and intimidate our voices.

Personally, I’m very concerned about our democracy. I’m concerned about the way that state governments in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and many other states have been captured in deeply antidemocratic ways through gerrymandering. Once this has happened, voting alone is not enough to change representation. The legislators have figured out a way to pick their voters, instead of voters picking their representatives. It is a situation that can seem helpless, as the traditional democratic process no longer works.

But I refuse to give up hope. Instead, I think we must be creative and committed to the righteousness of restoring democracy in our nation. To do this may require changing the composition or size of the Supreme Court. (This seems more feasible now that the corruption of Justice Thomas has been so fully revealed). It may require expanding the union to include more territories as states. It may require abolishing the filibuster and passing a new Civil Rights Act. We have to think strategically, and we have to consider carefully which norms we must respect and which have been hijacked to the detriment of our democracy and society.

A law like SB83 is written with its prejudice right there in the open, for all to see. It is the codification of Wilhoit’s Law: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” I myself do not believe this to be true of all conservatives, but it is clearly true of the wave of legislation being passed by Republican legislatures across the country. It is imperative that we fight instead for equity for all—before the forces of illiberalism make the very concept of “equality” illegal.

Our roots are in Ohio. We stand by our sister public universities in opposing this madness.