Universities of Wisconsin regents narrowly rejected a deal on December 9 reached with Republicans that would have given employees a pay raise, and paid for the construction of a new engineering building, in exchange for drastic reductions in staff positions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The regents voted 9-8 during an emergency meeting to reject the deal reached Friday after being brokered by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
“I don’t like this precedent,” Regent Dana Wachs said during the meeting. “We need to make this a welcoming environment.”
The vote was immediately panned by leaders of the Assembly Republican caucus, who had held the previously approved funding hostage as a barraging chip to push their anti-democratic agenda.
Assembly Democrats encouraged the Wisconsin public on December 8 to sign a letter to the regents via social media, 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 said. “We simply cannot allow him to continue seizing more control of our educational institutions.”
Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman expressed his disappointed with the regents’ vote.
“On balance, I believe this proposed agreement was in the best interests of the Universities of Wisconsin,” Rathman said.
Governor Tony Evers said the regents were committed to “doing what’s best for our past, present, and future students, faculty, and staff, and the institutions that have defined our state for generations.”
“I believe that’s what they did today in voting their values, and I understand and support their decision and vote,” Governor Evers said. “In the meantime, I again urge legislative Republicans to release the already-approved UW System employee raises and investments included in the biennial budget that are well overdue.”
The deal would have allowed an engineering building to be constructed at the UW-Madison campus. But it was not enough to offset the detrimental policies that the GOP’s gerrymandered legislative majority sought to impose.
Those demands include a freeze in hiring for diversity positions, dropping an affirmative action faculty hiring program at UW-Madison, and creating a position at the flagship campus focused on conservative thought – a euphemism that many feared represented the authoritarian ideology promoted by the criminally indicted ex-president Trump.
Conservatives have long criticized the UW system as a bastion of liberalism. For decades have tried to reverse the Roosevelt-era New Deal policies that Wisconsin championed and helped build modern America, in exchange for the oligarch interests of the wealthy who had previously triggered the Great Depression.
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.
Republican lawmakers in June refused to release funding for the new engineering building at UW-Madison, and 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 this summer included a 6% raise over the next two years.
Under the deal, the system would have frozen 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 have eliminated any statements supporting diversity on student applications.
UW-Madison also would have created a position that focuses on conservative political thought funded through donations and scrapped a program designed to recruit diverse faculty.
UW-Madison would have been 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 have been guaranteed admission at regional campuses.
In exchange, lawmakers would have released the already approved money to fund the pay raise for UW employees, and about $200 million that 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 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 after the deal was presented. “I’d give up my raise if it would have stopped this.”
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 December 8 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.