How will SB83 impact DEI initiatives at John Carroll University?



Secretary of State Frank LaRose pulls Ohio out of the ERIC agreement

Laken Kincaid, Editor-in-Chief

In recent years, the United States has been highly divided with a growing ideological and cultural polarization between the country’s major political parties. This has resulted in several contentious and partisan debates on a wide range of issues, from healthcare and tax policy to immigration and foreign policy. One key issue that has been on the docket, especially in purple (albeit slightly pink) states like Ohio, is partisanship in higher education.

Ohio Sen. Jerry Cirino, the chairman of the Workforce and Higher Education Committee, has been one of the legislators at the forefront of debating this issue in his home state. In an interview with The Carroll News, Cirino said “higher education has been high on [his] priority list for a long time.”

On Mar. 14, 2023, he introduced Senate Bill 83, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, in his respective chamber. This legislation focuses on a commitment to “intellectual diversity,” protecting free speech, prohibiting mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training, a consistent review of tenure procedures at universities and other policies regarding the collegiate educational sphere.

“What this bill is about, first and foremost, is the students and what’s best for [them],” Cirino stated. “Because if we don’t deliver a quality education for the tens of thousands of dollars you are paying, and very often go into debt for, then we’re not delivering what we owe you.”

When looking at the language in the bill regarding diversity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses, Cirino said that he is advocating for “true diversity of thought” for public universities in Ohio. Regarding DEI programs, Cirino elaborated that these curricula are “very expensive and very bureaucratic organizations within universities and colleges.”

“This bill is attempting to deal with that,” Cirino continued. “We’re not outlawing DEI courses or DEI training; what we are saying in the bill is that it cannot be mandatory in order to graduate, to get promoted, to get hired, to receive tenure, et cetera. Because we’re trying to promote more speech, not less and what I call true academic freedom. It is where all parties are allowed to think for themselves, to study, to analyze, decide what [their] positions are on policies and then arrive at [their] conclusion; not to be told what to think, but to be taught how to think.”

Cirino discussed multiple constitutional implications, stating that “forcing [DEI] training is a violation of several laws, it’s discrimination, it is forced speech.” Additionally, he stated that he wished to push back against the “liberal flux” seen across institutions in the United States so that “we have conservative thoughts as well as other thoughts represented on our campuses.”

This idea of “intellectual diversity” is just one of the aspects of the bill that Cirino is pushing. For John Carroll student Bobby Gerome ‘25 who will be testifying in front of the Ohio House of Representatives in favor of the bill in the future, other aspects of the legislation are just as appealing. For Gerome, the selling point of the legislation is the “transparency” it requires from universities and how it will propel student involvement.

“Schools will have to publish every single syllabus that is offered in a core curriculum at the university or the institution,” Gerome told The Carroll News. “Every single syllabus within every single institution has to be published and made public online. Everything involving tenure at universities in the state of Ohio will have to have a 50% say from students. It’s just more open dialogue.”

Yet, there has been some pushback against the legislation. Although John Carroll will not be substantially impacted by the bill at hand because it is targeted towards public institutions, the state funding JCU receives could be in Jeopardy. According to Selen Zarelli, the Director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion at JCU, John Carroll is implicated in the “appendix of the bill.” She says that, if the legislation is signed into law, many changes will occur both regarding the content professors are allowed to cover and DEI representation as a whole.

“This will impact us in various ways, such as the certain topics of American history that we have to teach,” Zarelli explained. “It’s only like six specific topics, we cannot teach more than that. Asian American history doesn’t exist [under this law]; Middle East and North American folks aren’t included.”

In response to these ideas, Cirino says that his goal is not to exclude but to perpetuate an environment that does not “pit each other against one another.” He also established that this will only impact mandatory portions of a school’s curriculum, like John Carroll’s core requirements, and not elected courses or majors. 

“What we do mention is that course content cannot espouse things that are divisive,” he clarified. “The things that make white people feel guilty because of slavery or that say that one person is better than another or that someone’s a victim, someone’s perpetrator, and so on. That’s not the kind of environment that’s social engineering and that does not belong on our campuses. 

“I don’t have a problem if they talk about socialism and socialist economics. But they should talk about capitalism and not pit one against the other per se. Today, it’s very fashionable for people that have a socialist bent, to talk about economics as we know it in the U.S. It’s in our history that capitalism is a bad thing; it enslaves people and so on. There’s no doubt there are issues with capitalism, but [students] shouldn’t be spoon fed things to believe in.”

Yet for Zarelli, the bill looks similar to those proposed in other past battleground states like Florida. She believes that it is imperative to respond to these types of legislation and bolster DEI initiatives at universities. Another concern of hers is that John Carroll could lose other funding from federal sources and grants that hinge on diversity enterprises on campus. 

“Being quiet is part of giving a statement that we are in agreement,” she elaborated. “It is very dangerous and, honestly, when I was talking to my counterparts at [a] conference, I was scared. I think folks are still learning that if you don’t do anything, if you don’t talk about it, it’s not going to happen. I think folks need to continue to talk about it so no one thinks this is okay.”

Cirino combats this by saying that the bill only impacts “capital projects that [the state government] get[s] requests for, grants and that sort of thing. Nothing that is in this bill will impact the students at the private colleges.”

However, regardless of the funding implications of the bill, the John Carroll University Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, Naomi Sigg, says that she and her staff will continue to foster a “deep sense of belonging” for the community regardless of the legislation’s outcome.

“We’re going to continue to also keep an eye on the bill and see what happens with it,” Sigg told The Carroll News. “We don’t know what will transpire over the next few months, but I do know that we will continue to be steadfast in our Jesuit Foundation, and that is to ensure that we are truly an institution in a culture that sees itself as a faith that does justice. We will care for the whole person and regard the human dignity of everyone on our campus. We will work together to ensure that we’re following laws as well.”

Currently, as of the writing of this article, SB83 was passed out of the Senate on May 17. It was introduced in the House on May 22 and was then subsequently referred to the chamber’s Higher Education Committee.