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HB 327 places scholars, educators in ‘jeopardy’

Dear President Rogers,

I first want to thank you for your leadership in opposing the bills that will restrict the teaching of “divisive concepts” popularly known as “critical race theory” that are now reaching their final vote in the Ohio legislature. It appears likely that one of these bills, HB 327, will be passed sometime in the next two weeks.

I am writing out of concern that after HB 327 becomes law we as a community of scholars and educators will have a duty to inform all prospective new hires of the subjects they may not research or teach without risking being investigated and disciplined. 

HB 327 outlaws the “promotion,” “support” or advocacy of seven distinct concepts that touch on a great number of academic subjects. As the determination as to whether a particular educator’s lessons constitute “promotion,” “support” or advocacy are highly subjective, effectively any discussion of these topics place a faculty member in jeopardy of being the subject of a student-complaint that in turn automatically triggers an administrative investigation and a star-chamber hearing where prosecutor, judge and jury are all the same. 

As this bill requires each public college and university to update its regulations regarding tenure to “reflect the principles” it establishes, it will, if it passes, inevitably impact the requirements for new faculty and perhaps, even the status of those already tenured. Fairness and honesty requires that we duly warn those considering applying for positions at BGSU that certain concepts may not be taught without the potential for investigation, discipline and negative evaluations. 

The range of concepts potentially prohibited, or at least close enough to potentially entrap faculty in investigations and discipline include many of the seven prohibited ideas seem commonsensical: no one should teach that “individuals of any race … are inherently superior or inferior” — indeed, ethnic studies was founded on the mission of dispelling just such ideas. Its inclusion here is a ham-fisted attempt to smear ethnic studies and diversity education. Likewise, I know of no ethnic studies texts that advocate that anyone should, “bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past.” 

But other prohibited concepts are so broad they encompass well-established fields of research and debate. To ban discussing that, “an individual … is inherently racist … whether consciously or unconsciously,” runs counter to a rich vein of psychological research into cognitive bias. To ban the debate over whether, “individuals should be adversely or advantageously treated … on the basis of their race,” is effectively to outlaw research into any remedies for racist harm. To mandate that no scholar should write that “any individual cannot succeed … because of the individual’s race” will make it very hard for historians to explain why so many African Americans during slavery were illiterate and so few were wealthy. 

In an apparent attempt to ensure that their bill does not actually chill free thought, speech and research, the crafters of this legislation included a list of specific topics that professors are free to discuss, “in an objective manner and without endorsement.”

These include “the history of an ethnic group,” “controversial aspects of history,” “historical oppression,” “historical documents” and the “civil rights movement.” While seeming to carve out exceptions to its seven prohibited concepts, this section actually sets a trap for the unsuspecting educator. Legally, what appear here to be permissions are actually contingent on some authority’s judgment that the lesson was “objective” and without “endorsement,” a vague matter in the best of cases. 

The department of ethnic studies at BGSU has recently been authorized to advertise for a tenure-track hire in the field of African American studies. I have circulated a memo with my colleagues that the advertisement for this position should include a warning such as:

“All applicants should be aware that in the event of passage of HB 327, the teaching of the cognitive bases of racial bias, the dynamics of cultural racism, structural racism including political and legal failures to enforce anti-discrimination law, the genocide of native peoples, the history of slavery and segregation, mass incarceration, police misconduct, racist aspects of American immigration policies, or any government subsidies that may have built the wealth of majority communities while excluding people of color, may result in administrative investigations and sanctions and negatively impact progress toward tenure, especially if any student alleges they were made to feel guilty about these topics because of their race, ethnicity, sex, etc.”

If HB 327 passes and is signed into law, it is incumbent that the university develop a standard disclaimer along these or similar lines. I hope you will lead such an effort in the interest of upholding our academic integrity. I for one, will not participate in any faculty hiring process that does not duly notify all prospective applicants of these risks.

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