Universities of Wisconsin makes deal with Vos on diversity positions, employee raises and other initiatives

The Universities of Wisconsin and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have reached a deal to freeze diversity position hires in exchange for lawmakers approving employee pay raises and funding a new engineering building at UW-Madison.

Associated Press

December 8, 2023

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A still image from a video livestream shows Jay Rothman and Jennifer Mnookin seated in a room, with a banner in the background showing the Universities of Wisconsin wordmark and the words 13 universities, 1 mission and Future Ready. For All. with an outline of the state showing the location of each campus connected by lines.

A still image from a video livestream shows Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin giving a press conference on Dec. 8, 2023, about a deal made with Republican lawmakers over funding for DEI positions, employee pay raises and other campus initiatives. (Source: Universities of Wisconsin)

AP News

By Todd Richmond, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Faced with a demand from Republican lawmakers to axe diversity initiatives or go without raises and other funding, Universities of Wisconsin officials announced Dec. 8 that they’ve agreed to freeze hiring for diversity positions, drop an affirmative action faculty hiring program at UW-Madison and create a position at the flagship campus focused on conservative thought.

Conservatives have long criticized the UW system as a bastion of liberalism. Democrats have accused Republicans of holding employees hostage by blocking pay raises. They argue that diversity initiatives enhance the collegiate experience and play a crucial role in identifying promising students who grew up with fewer resources. The fight in Wisconsin reflects a broader cultural battle playing out across the nation over college diversity initiatives.

“In recent years we’ve seen a growing emphasis on concepts that amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination on our campuses,” Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos, who brokered the deal with UW, said in a statement. “Our caucus objective has always been aimed at dismantling the bureaucracy and division related to DEI and reprioritizing our universities towards an emphasis on what matters — student success and achievement.”

Republican lawmakers in June refused to release funding for a new engineering building at UW-Madison and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in October blocked pay raises for employees across the system until it cut spending on positions that promote diversity. Vos refused to allocate funding for the raises even though the state budget that Republicans approved over the summer included a 6% raise over the next two years.

Vos and UW officials have been working behind the scenes on a compromise, however. Under the deal released Friday, the system would freeze hiring for diversity positions through the end of 2026 and shift at least 43 diversity positions to focus on “student success.” The system also would eliminate any statements supporting diversity on student applications.

UW-Madison would create a position that focuses on conservative political thought. The position would be funded through donations and scrap a program designed to recruit diverse faculty.

UW-Madison would be forced to accept applicants who finish in the top 5% of their class at a Wisconsin high school. Applicants who finish in the top 10% of their class at a Wisconsin high school would be guaranteed admission at regional campuses.

In exchange, lawmakers would release money to fund the pay raise for UW employees. They also would release about $200 million UW-Madison officials say they need to build a new engineering building on campus as well as money to renovate dorms on the flagship campus and at UW-Whitewater, Vos’ alma mater.

“We just sold out a lot of the BIPOC community in the UW system for a couple building projects and some low-end raises,” UW-Oshkosh journalism professor Vincent Filak tweeted. “I’d give up my raise if it would have stopped this.”

Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman said during a news conference that the negotiations were difficult and the end product was a compromise. But he said the deal will help the system continue to function.

Regents are expected to sign off on the deal during a hastily called meeting on Dec. 9. Large sections of the deal will require legislative approval. Republicans control both the Assembly and Senate. Whatever they approve would go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who could sign it into law or veto it.

The state Senate’s Republican majority leader, Devin LeMahieu, told The Associated Press in an interview earlier in the week that he believes the new engineering building should be built and the state has the money to fund UW raises. He was non-committal on the deal announced Friday, saying in an email to the AP that his caucus will deliberate on it.

Asked for comment on Dec. 8 via email, Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback pointed to remarks the governor made on Dec. 5 in which he told WISN-TV that withholding UW pay raises is “B.S.” and “really obnoxious.” She didn’t offer any comments on the deal itself.

The Legislature’s Black Caucus issued a statement saying it was “appalled and ashamed” at the diversity changes and questioned whether any Black or brown students were part of the negotiations.

“Who decided to undervalue our students and staff of color by setting a price tag on their inclusion on our campuses? Were our students and students’ interest even considered?” the caucus said in its statement.

The caucus went on to criticize the creation of a position devoted to conservative thought, calling it a “text-book example of how political agendas are pushed in our higher education system to silence others.”

“As a caucus, a line must be drawn and the line is this, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) is non-negotiable. Point. Blank. Period,” the caucus said.

Rothman said during his news conference that “diverse” stakeholders were involved in the negotiations but did not elaborate. Appearing on a Wisconsin Policy Forum video forum later on Dec. 8, he called the deal “evolutionary” and that he hoped the agreement would mend the system’s frayed relationship with Republican legislators.

“I don’t view it as a retreat,” he said.

Assembly Democrats later on afternoon of Dec. 8 asked their followers on social media to sign onto a letter to the regents urging them to reject the deal.

“Throughout his career, Speaker Vos has done everything in his power to undermine our universities and halt progress,” the letter says. “We simply cannot allow him to continue seizing more control of our educational institutions.”

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: PBS Wisconsin is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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