Ohio may prohibit employees at public universities, colleges from striking

Anna Staver Laura A. Bischoff
The Columbus Dispatch
Employees at public universities and community colleges such as Columbus State Community College would be prohibited from striking under a far-reaching bill proposed by Ohio lawmakers.

Employees at Ohio's public universities and community colleges would be prohibited from striking under a far-reaching bill that is likely to spark strong opposition from labor unions.

"Students pay for their instruction upfront at the beginning of a semester," said bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland. "That's a contract between the student and the state, and nothing should stand in the way of those students getting the instruction they paid for."

Cirino, who chairs the Senate's Workforce and Higher Education Committee, also wants to formalize how professors get evaluated (both before and after tenure) and change how all faculty at Ohio's 14 public universities and 23 community colleges negotiate their contracts.

To do all that, he introduced Senate Bill 83 on Tuesday. The comprehensive bill would add campus workers to the list of public employees who cannot strike. Currently, first responders and corrections officers aren't permitted.

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Faculty at Wright State University near Dayton went on strike for about three weeks in January 2019 over health care and pay disputes. And Youngstown State University workers went on strike in 2020 over pay disputes.

"This item ought to be off the table because it uses the students as pawns in a negotiating process," Cirino said.

But Sara Kilpatrick of the Ohio chapter of the American Association of University Professors said labor unions representing public employees might fight those changes, just like they did when they defeated Senate Bill 5 in 2011.

That law, signed by then-Gov. John Kasich, would have restricted how all public employees could collectively bargain and strike. The law never took effect because labor unions put it up for a statewide referendum vote. Ohioans rejected it 61.6% to 38.4%.

"I think you're going to see a big pushback from labor in Ohio," Kilpatrick said of Cirino's new bill.

The We Are Ohio coalition of labor unions has been meeting monthly since 2011, Kilpatrick said. And they "consider a threat to any labor union a threat to all."

Pre- and post-tenure evaluations

Cirino's legislation would also change how faculty are hired, evaluated, and ultimately fired from their jobs.

"To me, it’s a necessary management tool for the administration of our institutions," Cirino said.

The first significant change would be to "prohibit political and ideological litmus tests in all hiring, promotion, and admissions decisions, including diversity statements and any other requirement that applicants describe their commitment to a specified concept," according to a copy of the legislation obtained by the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau.

"This is not a political issue for me. This is not conservative or liberal," Cirino said. "This is making sure students are exposed to different theories."

The next change would require annual evaluations that include assessments on the following areas: teaching, research, service, clinical care, administration and other categories, as determined by the institution.

"Our research has indicated that evaluations are irregular and sometimes not done at all," Cirino said. "No group should be exempt from being reviewed periodically."

The bill also mandates student evaluations of their professors would count for 50% of the teaching component. One question, according to the bill, would be mandatory: "Does the faculty member create a classroom atmosphere free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias?" 

That doesn't mean professors can't express their opinions, Cirino said. "It really relates to the environment in a classroom. They can't create an environment that is in any way threatening or make students think that their grade might be jeopardized if they voice disagreement."  

Kilpatrick said that sounded like culture war creep to her.

"We're certainly seeing a lot of the culture wars being injected into higher education policy over the past few years," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, said terminology like "bias free" gives her pause too.

"While it sounds great and something I would strive for, the devil is in the details," she said. "Who ultimately is making that call, and how do any of us do that?"

As a former adjunct professor, Antonio also thought student evaluations had the potential to be colored by things like their grades rather than their actual experiences in class.

"There are so many circumstances that can affect a student’s evaluation that has nothing to do with the coursework," Antonio said.

The last change in the legislation would impact tenured professors.

Institutions would have until July 2024 to follow "post-tenure review policies" that kick in when tenured faculty receives "does not meet performance expectations" evaluations in the same category for two consecutive years.

"I have a personal view that I do not believe tenure is a good thing," Cirino said. "No one should be guaranteed a job effectively for life."

But he acknowledged that tenure helps universities lure talented academics and provides the latitude needed to spend significant blocks of time on research.

"I don’t want to disadvantage larger universities," Cirino said. "So we're looking at giving university presidents a little more authority to deal with those with tenure." 

Kilpatrick said the bill is "an opportunity to clear the air on issues that have been misunderstood in the higher education realm," including the myth that tenure means a job for life and no need to answer to anyone.

Mission statement rewrites

Another section of the bill would direct Ohio's public colleges and universities to rewrite their mission statements to include things like a pledge to let students "reach their own informed conclusions on matters of social and political importance" and have intellectual diversity among faculty as a goal.

It would also prohibit schools from using any political or ideological litmus tests when hiring faculty or requiring employees to sign documents attesting their support for certain beliefs. And students couldn't be required to sign something similar to graduate.

Trustee training

Trustees, who serve on governing boards for Ohio's public colleges and universities, aren't paid for their work.

"These are generally people who have proven themselves to be very successful in business," Cirino said. But the transition to a governing body can still be challenging.

SB 83 would require Ohio's chancellor of the Department of Higher Education to create a mandatory training program for these positions, and it would allocate state dollars to do so. "We need to make sure we’re providing the right tools," Cirino said.

Anna Staver and Laura Bischoff are reporters for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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