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Plans for ‘intellectual diversity’ centers at state universities are underway, including one at Miami University

A new state-funded center focused on American constitutional ideas and traditions will soon make its appearance at Miami University as an independent academic unit in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

Miami was one of five universities to receive state funding for the creation of a civics center specifically focused on American constitutional history. The University of Cincinnati (UC), Cleveland State University (CSU), the University of Toledo (UT) and the Ohio State University (OSU) were also included in the legislation.

“It's still being digested as to what’s the space in [the bill] to do things,” Randi Thomas, the vice president of ASPIRE, said, “[We’re figuring out] what does this word mean? What does that word mean and all that kind of stuff.”

ASPIRE is the external relations division for the university  primarily focused on community relations, government relations, corporate outreach and entrepreneurship.

The other universities are also working on how their centers will operate and implement teachings that align with the language outlined in the bill.

“[OSU] is working to develop this center in accordance with the law and applicable university rules and policies,” Chris Booker, director of media and public relations at OSU, wrote in an email to The Miami Student. “Ohio State is committed to free speech, civil discourse, critical thinking and intellectual diversity on our campuses and looks forward to further promoting these values in accordance with our educational mission.”

At UT, Lee Strang, a law professor at the university, said the center will seek to broaden political ideas and conversations. 

“One of the missions of these institutes is to enhance the intellectual diversity of their host universities,” Strang said.

Individuals from UC and CSU did not respond to requests for comment.

Thomas said the five universities are approaching implementation together through the Inter-University Council (IUC) of Ohio. The IUC is a voluntary association of Ohio’s 14 public universities which works to improve the quality of higher education throughout the state.

“The IUC and the five institutions are talking as you would imagine, through the IUC to just see if we all are thinking about [the bill] the same way and are we all interpreting it the same way and things like that,” Thomas said. “Thus far, I think the answer is yes, but it's still way too early.”

In Miami’s Department of Political Science, such programming is already offered through the Menard Family Center for Democracy and the JANUS Forum. The Menard Center provides bipartisan events through community-based lectures and hands-on experiences, while the JANUS Forum hosts a debate each semester where scholarly guests with opposing views come together to discuss one topic.

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“If you can't have those conversations on a college campus, where will they be had?” Thomas asked.

Chris Makaroff, the dean of CAS where the department of political science and the Menard Center are housed and where the eventual intellectual diversity center will be placed, declined to comment.

In an email to The Student, IUC president and CEO Laura Lanese wrote that the organization is working with Miami to ensure the new center “compliments” the already existing programs.

“The IUC will continue to support Miami University and the other public universities as they continue to work to promote these values throughout their campuses and with these new constitutional centers,” Lanese wrote.

When the bill was originally proposed in the state Senate in May, it passed the Workforce and Higher Education Committee with only two universities mentioned: UT and OSU. As the bill made its way to the Senate floor, three universities were amended in. The bill went to the House, but before it could be heard, the bill was added and passed in the Senate’s budget in July.

“We found out about [the bill] as we were watching it on the floor of the Senate,” Thomas said.

While the bill was in the Senate, more than 40 individuals and organizations submitted testimony advocating both for and against the bill before it was updated to include the three additional universities. After Miami was amended into the legislation just hours before it was passed in the Senate, many criticized Ohio lawmakers for not allowing impacted individuals to testify.

“No one from Miami U had a chance to testify about it,” the Faculty Alliance of Miami wrote in a Tweet shortly after the bill passed.

Mark Ridenour, chair emeritus of the Board of Trustees, submitted testimony as a proponent of the bill for its first hearing in May, before it was amended.

“My only quibble is that it is not sufficiently expansive,” Ridenour said. “We need such a center at Miami University of Ohio, and I am sure there are other public universities in this state that would welcome such opportunities.”

Ridenour did not respond to requests for comment.

“Legislation is a very fast-moving process,” Strang said about the additions. “It’s a complicated process with lots of give and take, and so this good idea of these institutes was expanded to three additional Ohio public universities.”

While implementation is being discussed by university administration, the Board of Trustees is tasked with appointing a seven-member academic council to oversee the operation of the center by Dec. 31. The council is required to have relevant experience, and only one member can be an employee of the university. Each of the members will be subject to term limits.

The council will lead a nationwide search for candidates to be the director. Miami’s President Greg Crawford will make the final decision of who will serve in that role upon approval by the Board of Trustees.

Because the center will be an independent unit, the director will not report to Makaroff, but instead will report directly to Miami’s Provost Elizabeth Mullenix and President Crawford. The director will also have the protection of tenure or tenure eligibility.

Miami, UC and CSU will each receive $2 million each fiscal year to fund the center, while OSU will receive $5 million, and UT will receive $1 million.