Proposed amendments to a landmark act on higher education could prompt changes for public universities — including OU — if left unchanged. 

First signed into law in 1965, the Higher Education Act was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda, aiming to provide more robust education resources for American universities and students. 

The act, which was last reauthorized in 2008, increased the amount of federal funding distributed to colleges and universities, and boosted financial aid through the creation of scholarships and low-interest student loans. 

On Dec. 1, Republicans of the House Education and Workforce Committee introduced the PROSPER Act — legislation that would reauthorize and update the Higher Education Act with a number of new stipulations. 

According to a statement from American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell, the council is concerned that the proposed legislation would “undermine decades of federal policy aimed at helping students … afford a high-quality higher education.” 

The measure, Mitchell wrote, would lead to higher interest charges for about six million student borrowers per year and eliminate an estimated 1.5 million in financial aid grants. 

In addition to addressing financial aid, the bill tackles issues of free speech and expression. According to the bill, “free speech zones and restrictive speech codes are inherently at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”  

Under the proposed legislation, no institution of higher education would be eligible to receive federal money unless the institution certifies that it has annually disclosed to current and prospective students any policies related to protected speech on campus. That includes any policies “limiting where and when such speech may occur.” 

In October, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio condemned a set of interim Ohio University policies as “unconstitutional” for their suppression of free expression on campus. 

The policies, which were implemented in August, effectively ban “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies," allowing the university to limit conduct that disrupts its operations, interferes with student activities or poses safety risks.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, the bill would also require that universities regularly administer conduct climate surveys, provide confidential counseling for survivors of sexual assault and notify complainants in sexual misconduct cases of available reporting and protection options. 

The legislation “seeks to simplify how victims are advised of the rights and resources available to them at the institution,” according to FIRE. 

In December, OU President Duane Nellis said certain provisions being discussed would be “another attack on higher education,” adding that the university would need to carefully watch the reauthorization process. 

“We can’t stand quiet,” Nellis said. “This is a crucial time. And this is not just about Ohio University — to me, it’s about the future of our country as far as economic development and quality of life. We need an educated citizenry.”


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