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Special Commentary by Senator Cirino on Landmark Higher Education Reform

July 7, 2023
Jerry C. Cirino News

Governor Mike DeWine has signed into law Senate Bill 117, co-sponsored by Senators Jerry C. Cirino (R-Kirtland) and Rob McColley (R-Napoleon.) Given the scope of this landmark higher education reform, Senator Cirino felt it appropriate to provide the following comments emphasizing how unique and historic this legislation is, as well as necessary.
Senate Bill 117 is historic because it establishes independent academic centers at five of Ohio's public universities. That is unique because there is nothing like it, at this scale, in any other state. The bill is needed because ideology is replacing the lessons of history on campus. And the less students learn about and embrace America’s founding principles and ideals, the more free speech is disappearing from our citadels of higher education and, subsequently, our entire nation.
Leftist ideology has a monopoly on most college campuses that is squashing intellectual diversity and punishing wrong-think and anti-woke dogma. But I do not believe the way to cure the leftist bias on campus is by foisting conservative ideology on academia. I believe the real fix is to ensure neutrality on the part of the instructors and administrators. Let all sides be heard. Let students decide for themselves what is true. Let free speech be preserved and protected. That is the American way. It should be taught in our universities again.

To accomplish that, SB 117 creates the Institute of American Constitutional Thought and Leadership within the University of Toledo’s College of Law to better prepare law students through civil discourse and rigorous inquiry, regardless of their philosophical viewpoint.

The bill also creates the Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society at the Ohio State University, as well as similar civic engagement centers at Miami University, the University of Cincinnati, and Cleveland State University.

The bill requires the Salmon P. Chase Center at Ohio State University to offer instruction in:

  • The books and major debates which form the intellectual foundation of free societies, especially that of the United States.
  • The principles, ideals, and institutions of the American constitutional order.
  • The foundations of responsible leadership and informed citizenship.

The bill requires all five centers to:

  • Educate students by means of free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth.
  • Equip students with the skills, habits, and dispositions of mind they need to reach their own informed conclusions on matters of legal, social, and political importance.
  • Value intellectual diversity in higher education and aspire to enhance the intellectual diversity of the university. 
  • Affirm a commitment to an ethic of civil and free inquiry which respects the intellectual freedom of each member, supports individual capacities for growth, and welcomes the differences of opinion that naturally occur in a public university.

This is a giant leap in the right direction for higher education in Ohio. The purpose of these centers is to engage students of all viewpoints in the fundamental questions concerning American society by employing rigorous debate, intellectual freedom and mutual respect.
Critics in the state media claim the academic institutes created by SB 117 are unnecessary because Civics and U.S. History are already taught in Ohio high schools. That doesn’t tell the real story.

  • Only 23% of Ohio adults got a passing grade on questions from the Citizenship test, according to a 2018 survey by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars.
  • A mere 4% received an A grade.
  • A whopping 59% flunked.
  • Only 47% of U.S. adults can name all three branches of government, according to a 2022 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
  • One in four could not name any branch.
  • And one in four could not name a single First Amendment freedom.
  • Only 24% of college students have a positive view of capitalism while 32% favor socialism over the free market, according to a 2021 poll by Newsweek.
  • Only 18% of college graduates could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.
  • 51% couldn’t identify term lengths of U.S. Senators and Members of Congress.
  • 10% of college graduates thought that “Judge Judy” (Judith Sheindlin) was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Right now, undergraduates at the Ohio State University and University of Toledo can graduate with a major in history without taking a course on the history of the United States. Let that sink in.

Not only are students not becoming versed in America’s founding principles of free speech and liberty, they are punished for exercising those rights when they violate leftist ideology. Cherise Trump is the Executive Director of Speech First, an organization that litigates on behalf of those whose right to free speech has been violated by colleges and universities. Here is some of what she testified in support of SB 117 before the Senate's Workforce & Higher Education Committee that I chair:
“I frequently hear from students who fear retaliation for expressing their views, especially if those views are outside the mainstream. They are afraid of being reported by their peers to the apparatchik that is the college administrators who run what are commonly known as ‘Bias Reporting Systems.’ These are anonymous reporting systems where students are encouraged to inform on one another for incidents of ‘bias’ or ‘offensive’ speech.”

“’Bias Incidents’ are often described as ‘microaggressions,’ not using someone’s preferred pronouns, ‘offensive speech’, ‘joking’, or ‘stereotyping.’ In some cases, even offending someone’s political affiliation is a reportable offense. All of these purported ‘offenses’ are constitutionally protected forms of speech.”
“When a student is reported to a BRS, they often do not get to face their accuser. They are asked to meet with a member of the administration. Once in the meeting, the student might be asked to write a letter of apology, attend DEI training, or see a counselor.”
“Bias Reporting Systems intimidate and silence students whose viewpoints do not conform to the dominant social, political, and cultural narratives on campus. By design, these teams create an environment of fear that chills speech and dialogue between students of diverse viewpoints, ultimately silencing speech through self-censorship.”

“The bottom-line: no one actually knows what they could get in trouble for saying. This is antithetical to America’s founding principles. And how on earth could this possibly create a constructive learning environment?”
Here’s some of what others testified in support of SB 117.
Associate Dean Rebecca E. Zietlow, University of Toledo College of Law:

“The Institute will enrich students’ education in numerous ways. It will provide additional classes, it will attract and retain excellent faculty, and it will provide avenues for student research and writing. The Institute will enrich the University’s academic community by partnering with existing and new faculty to teach, research, write, and mentor students on fundamental questions concerning justice, the rule of law, and the Constitution."

"The Institute will model for students, through its intentional creation of civil debate and discussion, how Americans of all viewpoints should engage with each other as fellow citizens together participating in the common enterprise of self-government. It will be a valuable asset for the University of Toledo College of Law, the University community as a whole and the Toledo community at large.”
Mark Ridenour, Chair Emeritus of the Miami University of Ohio board of trustees:

“The commitment of these institutions to open debate and discourse and to intellectual diversity addresses a desperate need both on campus and in American society at large.”

“As a nation, we are in peril when we exile the better angels of our nature and demonize rather than talk openly as citizens of a free society. It is time for higher education to be part of the solution. That is one of the reasons I cherish the intent of SB 117.”

Nick Down, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni:
“Twenty-three years ago, my organization brought attention to this problem through a published report, Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century. Since then, ACTA has watched with alarm the continuing decline of knowledge of American civic institutions and the history of their development. We are not alone in monitoring this trend either. The issues that SB117 seeks to address are a matter of bipartisan concern, and we enthusiastically support the proposed legislation because it provides a commonsense solution to this problem.”
“I need hardly rehearse the devastating reports of deplatformings and shout-downs from Yale to Stanford that have received national attention, just in the last 12 months. Or repeat the disheartening statistics of civic illiteracy. We have before us a strong remedy. Senators Cirino and McColley have done a great service in crafting SB 117, and ACTA enthusiastically supports this legislation.”

Adam Kissel, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education:

“Students across Ohio and nationwide report alarming rates of self-censorship and the inability to have a civil conversation about contentious social and political issues. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression conducts an annual survey of the free speech climate for students, and the results are poor. At Ohio State University, four out of five students say they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in class. Half say they at least sometimes self-censor. One in five say it could be acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech. And while OSU ranks above average in the survey even with these results, most Ohio colleges rank below average.”

“In this climate, it makes good sense to develop a school or a center at your flagship university that is dedicated to viewpoint diversity around fundamental civic education. It also makes good sense to provide such a high-quality, neutral program at other universities, including at their law schools.”

Now that SB 117 has been signed into law, I am focused upon passage of Senate Bill 83, which would safeguard the right to free speech and enhance intellectual diversity across all of Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

That bill will be revisited in the House in September and I expect it to pass.