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Senate Bill 135: What We Know

State Sen. Jerry Cirino

On March 17, Senator Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) introduced Ohio Senate Bill 135, which contains a laundry list of changes to public higher education.

Sen. Cirino’s district encompasses Portage County and parts of Geauga and Lake Counties. He is a former trustee of both Lakeland Community College and Lake Erie College. This is his first term in the General Assembly.

SB 135 has caused quite a stir in the higher education world due to the breadth and nature of the proposals.

The centerpiece of the bill involves creating a “second chance voucher program,” which would give students who did not complete a degree at a four-year public university the chance to earn a degree at their former school or a different school, with their former school footing most of the bill for the new opportunity.

While we can appreciate the intent of such a program, the financial implications for universities could be stark. Universities already are “incentivized” to ensure students are completing courses and graduating due to the State Share of Instruction (SSI) funding formula. This type of program could lead to a myriad of unintended consequences.

SB 135 also would give the Chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education authority to expand or close majors based on graduation rates and “in-demand” jobs, and would expand nursing degree programs at community colleges.

Moreover, the legislation seeks to codify free speech on college and university campuses to give students the “broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn and discuss any issue,” according to Sen. Cirino. At this time, it is not clear how much of the language on free speech differs from what already was passed and enacted in the FORUM Act last year.

However, of particular concern to faculty is a section of the bill that states the following:

Although faculty are free in the classroom to discuss subjects within areas of their competence, faculty shall be cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom and shall be careful not to introduce matters that have no relationship to the subject taught, and especially matters in which they have no special competence or training and in which, therefore, faculty’s views cannot claim the authority accorded statements they make about subjects within areas of their competence; provided, that no faculty will face adverse employment action for classroom speech, unless it is not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed, and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction. 

Clearly, that language raises serious concerns about academic freedom.

There are some positive aspects of the bill. For instance, it strives to promote greater transparency at our public institutions of higher education, which we believe is desperately needed, as many institutions have become increasingly secretive, especially regarding budgetary matters. The bill specifically calls for institutions to report on instructional and administrative spending.

In addition, the bill would prohibit institutions from withholding transcripts from students if they have outstanding debt at their institutions. We believe that students should always be able to acquire their transcripts, as not doing so could inhibit their ability to obtain more education or get a job.

SB 135 has been referred to the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee, of which Sen. Cirino is the Vice Chair. We suspect it will get hearings, but has not been scheduled for any to date. We are engaging members of the committee to discuss the various issues, and will update you as the process unfolds.

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