UW System Regents reverse course to approve deal with GOP lawmakers on funding, DEI

By: - December 14, 2023 5:30 am

The deal, which was negotiated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and UW System President Jay Rothman, is the culmination of months of Republican lawmakers targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Wisconsin’s public universities by withholding funding. Rothman speaks during the UW Board of Regents meeting hosted at Union South at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Feb. 9, 2023. (Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved a controversial deal with Republican lawmakers during a special meeting Tuesday night. The agreement, which the Regents had initially rejected on Saturday,  trades “reimagining” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses for the release of funding for staff pay raises and infrastructure projects.

Regents approved the deal in a 11-6 vote despite ongoing concerns expressed by Democratic state leaders, UW students and staff. 

Regent Karen Walsh, Amy Blumenfeld Bogost and Jennifer Staton flipped their votes to a yes after voting no on Saturday. Other Regents who voted in favor of the proposal included Robert Atwell, Héctor Colón, Mike Jones, Jim Kreuser, Cris Peterson, Ashok Rai, Mark Tyler and Kyle Weatherly. 

Walsh said that Regents were voting on the proposal again because the Board did not have sufficient time to discuss the proposal and its potential benefits and pitfalls before Saturday. 

“Since that vote, we have had the opportunity to discuss the proposal with each other and hear viewpoints from our chancellors, faculty, staff and students. That’s just good governance, not a defense of a particular ideology,” Walsh said. “Our email and voice mailboxes have been filled with passionate pleas, on both sides. A deliberate, engaged board must have time to absorb this feedback and allow the process to play out.”

Between Saturday’s rejection and Wednesday’s approval, Republican lawmakers refused to negotiate any further and threatened to reject unconfirmed Board appointees due to the vote. Regents then met in a closed session on Tuesday to discuss the deal as well as  a recent lawsuit filed by Gov. Tony Evers against Republican lawmakers. UW President Jay Rothman declined to comment on what was discussed during the meeting.

According to a Wisconsin Legislative Council memo, the meeting did not not appear to comply with the notice requirements for a closed session of a governmental body.

Walsh added that the commitment to students, faculty and staff of different races, creeds, religions, veteran status, socioeconomic status and political beliefs is a core value of the UW System and that the proposal doesn’t jeopardize that.

Staton, a UW-Parkside student and a veteran, chastised Vos for his rhetoric surrounding DEI. 

“DEI is not only intrinsic to the UW System but also to large business strategies. When businesses implement this strategy, it has been proven that they outperform their peers but I don’t see them being attacked…” Staton said. “Speaker Vos’ definition of DEI is division, exclusion and indoctrination… What rock is he living under? He has lost touch of the reality of how people are actually living because, to be honest, we aren’t walking around arguing about the DEI.”

Staton voted yes on the deal, however, because of concerns about whether certain UW campuses could weather the withholding of funds. 

“The reality is without this resolution, [UW] Parkside may not be here in the years to come,” Staton said during the meeting. “Parkside is not alone in this fear.” 

Regent John Miller, who voted against the deal again, said he rejected the premise of the deal, which is “the Legislature can withhold funds for universally supported building projects and pay raises for the committed employees of our universities for the sole purpose of making a political statement.” 

“It is wrong,” Miller continued. “I fear that acceptance of this tactic will only embolden its adherence, 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.” 

Other Regents who voted against the proposal include Angela Adams, Evan Brenkus, Edmund Manydeeds, Joan Prince and Dana Wachs. 

The deal, which was negotiated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and UW System President Jay Rothman, is the culmination of months of Republican lawmakers targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Wisconsin’s public universities by withholding funding. Vos has said on numerous occasions that his goal is to completely eliminate all DEI from the UW System. 

Vos said he was glad the regents approved the deal

“I’m glad they approved the compromise tonight despite reported last-minute lobbying by Gov Evers to scuttle the deal,” Vos said in a social media post. “We finally have turned the corner and gotten real reforms enacted. Republicans know this is just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices on UW campuses.”

Rothman thanked the Regents for approving the deal in a social media post.

“Given the circumstances, this is good for our students, our universities, and the state of Wisconsin. Compromise can be extraordinarily difficult, and I acknowledge that not everyone will be happy,” Rothman said in a statement. “Our commitments are conditioned on legislative action. We expect the state legislature will now honor the agreement we reached, which I believe, on balance, is in the best interest of the UWs and our state.”

Under the proposal which was initially announced on Friday, the UW System will agree to “reimagine” DEI by freezing the number of DEI positions and realign a third of those positions — or about 43 positions — to focus not on historically marginalized groups but on academic and student success more broadly. 

The UW System has also agreed to commit to ensuring there is “strict compliance” with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. in eliminating affirmative action in its admissions process across all institutions and to eliminate any requirement for a diversity statement in admissions applications. It will also develop and implement a module about freedom of expression for incoming undergraduate students and support a Republican bill that guarantees admission to UW System schools for the top 10% of academic performers, except at UW-Madison which will automatically admit the top 5% of Wisconsin high school students. 

Republican lawmakers will in exchange agree to release pay raises that were initially approved during the budget cycle and restore $32 million in funding that was cut from the UW System budget by Republicans as a way of cutting DEI efforts on campuses. In addition, Republican leaders agreed to approve funding for the highly sought new engineering building at UW-Madison and other infrastructure projects.

Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement that the vote “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.” 

“This exercise has been about one thing — the relentless political tantrums, ultimatums, and threats of retribution by legislative Republicans, most especially Speaker Robin Vos, his negotiation-by-bullying tactics, and general disdain for public education at every level,” Evers said.

Evers, who supported the initial rejection by the Board, said that he disagreed with the decision and that he was frustrated by the approval, the proposal and the process. He added that he expects that those who promised to continue the work of building diversity, equity and inclusion will be working in earnest to make good on their commitment.

The approval came despite calls to delay the vote and reject the deal. 

On Tuesday afternoon, state Superintendent Jill Underly called on Regents to delay the vote in a statement. Underly is currently out of the country, according to the statement, with inconsistent internet access and was unavailable at the scheduled meeting time.

Underly said that she agreed with Evers that “these are conversations that should continue in the weeks ahead, and not be cut short due to an artificial, political deadline.” 

“It is clear the Regents are divided, and further work is necessary,” Underly said. “I look forward to being able to be a full part of that conversation upon my return to the U.S. next week.” 

The Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference ahead of the vote, urging the Regents to reject the deal. Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee) said that the deal is discriminatory towards students, faculty and staff of color.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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