UW regents explain their votes on diversity and funding deal

Universities of Wisconsin regents describe their stances in a second vote on a deal with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to make cuts to programs and changes in staffing relating to diversity.

By Marisa Wojcik, Frederica Freyberg | Here & Now

December 15, 2023

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The Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents took a U-turn on Dec. 13, voting 11 to 6 to approve a deal negotiated with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — after a vote on the very same deal failed just days earlier.

At stake was hundreds of millions of dollars for employee pay raises, building construction and constraining programming related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Last Saturday, this board faced one of its toughest votes in memory,” said UW Board of Regents President Karen Walsh

That Dec. 9 vote of the UW regents failed 9 to 8, with all who voted against the deal being appointed or re-appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The board had called three special meetings over several days over the course of the week – one of which was closed to the public and possibly violated notice requirements under the state’s open meetings law.

Some board members who changed their votes from no to yes did so with distress.

“Speaker Vos’ definition of DEI is division, exclusion and indoctrination,” said student regent Jennifer Staton. “He has created and perpetuated this battle here in Wisconsin — we aren’t walking around arguing about DEI.”

Board members who voted no both times were resolute.

“I fear that acceptance of this tactic will only embolden its adherents, leading to a never-ending cycle of brinkmanship simply to extract a politically motivated policy concession that they don’t have the power to legislate,” said regent John Miller.

Some who voted yes both times still didn’t like the deal.

“This deal, distasteful though it is, in my judgment, and on balance, gives us a better ability to serve not only those students, but all students,” regent Kyle Weatherly said.

But others saw it necessary to compromise.

“It’s my fiduciary duty to put the needs of this system in front of any personal opinion I may hold,” said regent Ashok Rai.

The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference condemning the action.

“It is discriminatory towards students, staff and faculty of color because their experiences should never have a price tag,” said state Rep Dora Drake, D-Milwaukee.

Vos, R-Rochester, 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.”

In his own statement, Evers said: “This vote today represents a vast overreach by a group of Republicans who’ve grown exceedingly comfortable overextending, manipulating, and abusing their power to control, subvert, and obstruct basic functions of government.”

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

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