Republicans stage attack on Ohio’s universities, academic freedom

With proposed Senate Bills 83 and 117 posing an historic threat to academic independence, there are lessons to be drawn from free speech advocates of Columbus past.
James Thurber
James ThurberWikimedia Commons

“I have faith that Ohio State will restore freedom of speech and freedom of research,” James Thurber wrote to OSU in 1951, “but until it does, I do not want to seem to approve of its recent action.” 

The letter was in response to being awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Although he would’ve much rather avoided the theatrics – Thurber was primarily a humorist and preferred to remain in an apolitical bubble of whimsical fables – he became the first individual in OSU’s history to decline an honorary degree, opting to support free speech over the anti-communist policies being implemented by the school. 

OSU had, just a few weeks prior, implemented a ban on “controversial” speakers and meetings on campus, a policy spurred by Gov. Frank Lausche and implemented by the school's trustees, all of whom were, at best, politically conservative, and, at worst, as Thurber put it, “aggressively patriotic gentlemen always ready and eager to save America from the perils of academic freedom.”

Ohio’s legislators had always acted as a thorn in the side of the university, especially the College of the Arts. In the early 20th century, some tried to ban Percy Shelley’s works on personal grounds (Shelley’s love life was, in Thurber’s own words, “un-Ohioan”), some likely pushed for the banning of teaching German in 1917, and in that same year some likely supported fraternities holding Bible classes to counteract the godless literature of perilous writers such as German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As Thurber saw it, OSU became “one of the chief fortresses of the academic army to liberal education.” 

One can only imagine what Thurber would say today, how he would respond to Ohio Senate Bill 117 and SB 83, and what kind of fiction he would write in response to the fascistic attacks on Ohioans basic liberties – he was fond of writing fictional metaphors of the McCarthy era, even if risking his career (see: “Look Out for the Thing”; The Male Animal; “The Very Proper Gander”; and “The Birds and the Foxes.”)

The Republican Party is attempting to go further today than what it did to OSU during the worst of both Red Scares, reaching beyond the banning of “controversial” speakers, meetings, writers and even languages. Although the bills are still going through the gears of the legislature, Ohio’s GOP is attempting to purge all that is deemed offensive to nationalistic sentiments or not exalted as heroic to reactionary forces. In proper Ohio fashion, they are again ready to save America from the perils of academic freedom.

SB 117 and SB 83

SB 117, which seeks to establish education centers in Ohio’s major colleges – Ohio State University, the University of Toledo, Miami University, Cleveland State University and the University of Cincinnati – is an unprecedented offensive against Ohio’s colleges. It would effectively create a nucleus on campuses for the GOP to operate out of – a kind of bridge between the Statehouse and each university, allowing it to create an academic base for the culture war. These education centers, each receiving at least $1 million under the proposed bill, would teach “the historical ideas, traditions, and texts that have shaped the American constitutional order and society.”

Much like OSU’s policy in the 1950s, SB 83 would ban certain “controversial beliefs and policies” from being adopted by state universities, including equity and inclusion training, affinity groups, affirmative action, Chinese courses (today’s German), collective bargaining and strikes. The bill would also require specific American history courses be taken by every student, and would introduce what would be, in effect, ideological screenings for tenure and state funding, punishing those who display “liberal bias.”

“There is a structural preponderance of one line of thought in our universities today,” Sen. Jerry Cirino, one of SB117’s sponsors, said in a Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee meeting. “With the passage of this legislation, we are giving students and their parents’ options within the market to choose an education that is best suited for them.” Cirino’s timid characterization of the legislation – noticeably reserved and almost meaningless in its abstraction – is not shared by his colleagues across the country.

Liberty University’s communication director, Ryan Helfenbein, was recently interviewed about the conservative attacks on schools. “Education really is evangelism. If you don’t control education, you cannot control the future. … Hitler knew that. We have to get that back for conservative values,” he said. 

In that same week, the Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty quoted Hitler in its newsletter: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Ohio’s legislature, while withholding Hitler quotes, has echoed these same notions, hidden behind obscure proclamations of freedom and liberty, and attempted to pose as the heirs of the founding fathers. 

OSU’s Board of Trustees released a statement in support of SB 117, but opposed most aspects of SB 83, specifically the banning of controversial topics, screening of faculty seeking tenure, the inherent expansion of administrative bureaucracy and the unavoidable lawsuits that would unfold due to the bill’s vague language. “The trustees of Ohio State welcome a fulsome dialogue … rather than … an unusually expedited legislative process,” trustees said.

While OSU’s trustees oppose SB 83, they’ve also signaled that they’d voluntarily implement some of the policies the GOP favors, such as creating resolutions to reaffirm “intellectual diversity,” updating the campus free speech policy and excluding required diversity statements. The vague phrases of free speech and intellectual diversity echo the GOP as ideological smokescreens for granting far-right perspectives legitimacy in academia. 

Millions for Manure

In the early 20th century, top Shakespearian scholar and OSU Dean Joseph Denney pushed back on state interference. When he was president of the American Association of University Professors, he named three primary enemies of his colleagues: state legislatures, ecclesiastical bodies and “powerful influence operating through trustees.” He became known as an apostle for the humanities at OSU, once proclaiming loudly that there was “millions for manure, but not one cent for literature,” referring to Ohio legislature’s swiftness in funding agricultural buildings but refusal to build a theater. (Shakespeare was performed outside and other plays on a cramped chapel stage.)

On Thurber’s last visit to Columbus before his death, he was invited to speak at the dedication of OSU’s newly constructed Denney Hall, named after Joseph Denney. It was 1960 and OSU hadn’t attempted to offer Thurber another honorary degree since his original refusal. (It wasn’t until 1995, long after his death, that he’d receive one posthumously.) 

As he spoke, Thurber might’ve surprised attendees when he invoked Shakespeare and urged American universities to resist all external and internal pressures: “The heart in which there is not fighting is as barren as the soul without conflict or the mind without anxiety or the spirit without struggle.” 

The two might be largely forgotten as local advocates for free speech, but their message is just as relevant today. Thurber and Denney, receiving word of Ohio’s present legislature, must be turning restlessly in their graves at Green Lawn Cemetery.

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