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How could Ohio’s Senate Bill 83 impact teaching climate change and policy?

Senate Bill 83 may change the way climate policy is discussed in higher education.
Senate Bill 83 may change the way climate policy is discussed in higher education.

Last May, the Ohio Senate passed Senate Bill 83 (S.B. 83), a bill proposed to “promote intellectual diversity in Ohio institutes of higher education.” If passed through the state House of Representatives and signed by Governor Mike DeWine, S.B. 83 could limit the expression of beliefs in the classroom that the bill deems as “controversial.”

The bill defines a “controversial belief or policy” as any idea or topic that is “politically controversial.” This vague definition allows for the targeting of a wide range of beliefs and policies from diversity, equity and inclusion to climate policies. This past summer, S.B. 83 was edited and one of the big changes was its shift from labeling climate change as controversial to more narrowly labeling climate policy as controversial.

Currently, S.B. 83 is in the House Committee waiting to be voted on after a series of ongoing hearings. This period of a bill’s life is often referred to as its “mark-up session” during which public opinion is taken into consideration before the bill is voted on.  

After being passed by the Ohio Senate, Senate Bill 83 will now go through the house and, should it pass, onto the governor. Photo from the Ohio Legislature

S.B. 83’s last hearing took place just days ago on Nov. 29th. During this hearing, public testimony, mostly against the bill, was heard and there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for the bill’s failure. This hope was highlighted in the removal of the anti-striking provision in a revised version of the bill as well as wishy-washy support in the House.

“It doesn’t have the votes,” said House Speaker Jason Stephens. However, Senator Jerry Cirino, the bill sponsor, counter-claimed Stephens’ statement: “I think there is tremendous support in the House [for S.B. 83.]"

While it is unclear how S.B. 83 is favored in the House and how the bill will police these topics in the classroom, Miami University professors are already preparing to modify their classes, especially regarding climate policy.

“I don’t like the idea of the legislature telling faculty how to teach [climate change and policy] or micromanaging those teachings,” said David Gorchov, a biology professor who primarily teaches BIO155 Field Botany and IES275 Principles of Environmental Science.

While Gorchov is concerned with the potential regulations, he also feels that students should learn about both sides of polarizing topics. Gorchov said that he already presents climate policy as a contentious subject in the classroom and that he would not be “doing anything that runs afoul of S.B. 83” if it were to pass. 

Like Gorchov, Maija Sipola, a geology professor who teaches GLG121 Environmental Geology and GLG141 Geology of U.S. National Parks, said when her courses shift to discussing climate, she focuses on science and not so much on policy. If S.B. 83 were to pass, it would not have an impact on her teachings of climate in the classroom since she only teaches the strong evidence of modern climate change. 

However, if climate change was still labeled more broadly as “controversial” in the bill, Sipola expressed concern about the bill majorly “affecting what students learn.”

Douglas Meikle, a biology professor, said S.B. 83 would also not affect his teachings much since he, like Sipola, focuses primarily on climate science and not on policy in his courses.

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However, if the bill kept its wider definition of climate change as contentious, Meikle worried that “for younger faculty, it would potentially stifle or dictate how they’re going to teach.”  

Meikle also had hopes for S.B. 83 to be litigated against but said many faculty members can’t afford to bring lawsuits forward, so organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union might come in to support those efforts. 

Miami students prepare for potential impacts on education

While professors are preparing for potential modifications of their courses by the Ohio legislature, students are becoming increasingly aware of the role politics can have in higher education.

“The fact that [S.B. 83] has politicized science drives me nuts,” said Abby Haverkos, a junior individualized studies major with focuses on environmental studies, geography and sustainable development.

However, Haverkos said if S.B. 83 did pass, it would not significantly impact her learning since she is going into her final year at Miami. 

Despite the bill not impacting her own college experience, Haverkos said that discussions of climate change should not be “up for debate in the realm of higher education.”

“I don’t see, at least Miami University specifically, being super woke on climate change,” said Evelyn Morrison, a junior public administration and sustainability double major. “I feel like [Miami] steers away from climate change language in general.”

Like Haverkos, Morrison said the bill would not affect her learning especially since Miami is not, in her view, diligent in teaching about climate change topics.

Morrison, despite not viewing Miami as vocal on climate issues, expressed worries about professors being hesitant to share their climate research and viewpoints, which would downgrade her learning experience. 

What’s next?

While S.B. 83 does not currently outline a concrete policing power of beliefs and policies it deems “controversial,” like climate policy, its selection of topics that fall under this umbrella could set precedents for the future of higher education in Ohio for many professors and students. 

To keep updated on S.B. 83’s progress, visit the Ohio Legislature’s page on S.B. 83 and listen for opportunities to write testimony on your opinion of S.B. 83 as ongoing hearings take place in the House.