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Ohio’s critical race theory bills: What they are, and how they could affect Miami

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Miami University faculty fear two bills being considered by The Ohio House of Representatives would alter the way they can teach race and current events in the classroom. 

House Bill 327 applies to state school districts and public colleges. The bill prohibits the teaching of “divisive concepts,” a term which includes a list of topics related to race, sex, nationality, color and ethnicity. 

House Bill 322 also applies to state school districts but doesn’t specify whether universities are included. The bill puts in place a host of regulations surrounding what can and cannot be included in state schools’ curriculum. Some of these include prohibiting the discussion of current events and teaching that ​​“fault, blame or bias should be assigned to a race or sex.” 

The bills come with severe penalties for those who violate them, including the withholding of funding and effects on employment and hiring decisions. 

Opponents of the bill take issue with the vagueness of its description, such as its use of ill-defined terms like “divisive concepts.” 

Cathy Wagner, an English professor at Miami, said this vague language may have been intentional, with the hope of creating a censoring effect.  

“I think the purpose of the legislation is to create an atmosphere in which people are not sure whether it's okay to speak about x or y,” Wagner said. “If they're not sure, they might think ‘Well, it's pretty risky, I better not do it.’”

Opponents also believe the bill misrepresents what is being taught in school classrooms, as well as what concepts like critical race theory actually mean. 

Bill 322, for instance, prohibits the teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” which its supporters have linked to the teaching of CRT.

Rodney Coates, a professor of global and intercultural studies and an expert in critical race theory, said the theory has nothing to do with the superiority of one race over another, as the bills’ writers claim. 

“Critical race theory recognizes the positionality that who you listen to gives you a particular vantage point in viewing reality,” Coates said. “Having these different places to interrogate what we call reality means that we can start seeing different facets of that reality.”

In other words, viewing history from the point of view of a Black women would be a lot different from the point of view a Jewish man, or a transgender person, and so on. 

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“The more [viewpoints] we’re able to put on the table, the richer that history is going to be,” Coates said. 

Writers of the bill believe instructors are indoctrinating students and promoting their personal beliefs and ideologies.

Miami professors argue that not only are students not required to take specific courses, but that a professor’s job is to inform, not persuade. 

Ann Fuehrer, a retired professor of global and intercultural studies, is teaching Introduction to Gender Studies this year to fill in for a professor on leave.

“I'm not necessarily recruiting people to be feminists,” Fuehrer said. “But I do want people to better understand their own beliefs and how they can act on those beliefs, whatever those beliefs are.”

The gravest concern over the bills is that they violate the academic freedom of educational institutions. 

“Colleges and universities don’t run away from ideas; we engage them,” Coates said. “The reason you have these institutions, and academic freedom, is to allow people to pursue knowledge without being constrained by politics and so forth.” 

Fuehrer said states should play a limited role in what a university should teach, but only to help with things like transferring course credits to different colleges. 

“When it comes to the actual content of a course, it’s up to the people who are professionally credentialed in particular areas to determine what’s appropriate,” Fuehrer said. 

If the bills are passed, Miami’s status as a state university means they would have several ramifications for professors and their courses.

Wagner said in addition to restricting the type of content that professors are allowed to teach, the bills would likely impact Miami’s hiring decisions, diversity training and first-year orientation programs. 

Wagner said the bills may also have a racialized impact, as professors who teach subjects like Black world studies and Latin American studies often belong in those categories. 

Students and faculty have shared concerns about how these bills might impact the quality of education and their experience at Miami. 

Ash Aoibheil, a senior theater major, said that as someone with multiple marginalized identities, being able to speak about these topics in the classroom makes them feel safer. 

“Even if we don’t share the same views, the fact that these conversations are happening and knowing that your professors and peers are open to hearing about your experiences is really important to feeling a sense of belonging,” Aoibheil said. 

Caroline Funk, a senior English literature and creative writing major, said discussions about difficult topics like race have helped her grow both as a student and as a person. 

“[The classes] helped me see the world in new ways and think critically for myself,” Funk said. “An academic setting with your peers fosters more critical thinking than if I were just reading something on my own.” 

Fuehrer said the bills pose a threat to the foundation of upper education.

“Education is about broadening perspectives and gaining new insight,” Fuehrer said. “If [academic freedom] is taken away from faculty, we lose our roles as professors.”

If students and faculty wish to take action on these bills, they can write to their Ohio legislators here.

rudere@miamioh.edu

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