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WI GOP Lawmaker Holds University Pay Raises Hostage in Order to Eliminate DEI

Demands for cuts to DEI show "a lack of respect and a lack of value" for those staff, one UW System employee said.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos waits to address the Assembly during a legislative session on December 4, 2018. in Madison, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s highest-ranking Republican lawmaker has demanded that the state’s public university system eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions within the institutions it oversees, or risk losing over $100 million in already-approved pay raises for every employee over the next two years.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) said in an interview this week that, unless DEI positions are eliminated, he would seek to block pay increases for 34,000 University of Wisconsin (UW) System employees.

Workers within the university system are supposed to receive a 4 percent increase in pay in 2024, and a 2 percent raise in 2025. Lawmakers have already approved these increases, but they must make it through final approval of a legislative committee, of which Vos is a co-chair.

“I don’t think that they (UW System) deserve to have any more resources until they accomplish the goal” of eliminating DEI programs, Vos said this week. “Not a nickel. When I say a nickel, that’s what I mean.”

If DEI positions are not eliminated, Vos’s threat would mean that $107.6 million in promised pay raises across the UW System would not be given over the next two years.

Conservative lawmakers have made DEI content in schools a political boogeyman in recent years to tout their bona fides to the Republican Party’s increasingly extremist base. Attacks on DEI programs have come amidst a larger right-wing effort to suppress classroom lessons on topics like gender and sexuality and racism in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, Vos and Republicans sought to remove DEI positions from the UW System by passing legislation that cut $32 million from the system budget, the approximate amount spent statewide for DEI workers and educators. Instead of agreeing to cut those positions, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers shifted cuts to other parts of the UW System budget, keeping the DEI programs untouched and staffing positions in place.

UW-La Crosse English associate professor Stephen Mann decried the threat as “as a political move in order to fulfill this agenda against DEI initiatives.” In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Mann added:

I think [Vos’s demand] shows a lack of respect and a lack of value that is seen in the important work that the employees of the UW system are doing in the state for the people of the state.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D) also spoke out against the move proposed by Vos, which would affect 13 universities across the state.

“I think it is short-sighted and harmful and clearly out of partisan desire. It’s not what is in the best interest in the state of Wisconsin,” Agard said. “We know highly successful business, nonprofits and educational institutions embrace DEI and the benefits from it.”

Critics have said that Vos’s demands are particularly egregious given that research has shown that racism is a public health crisis in Wisconsin, particularly for Black residents.

“Over the last 40 years, opportunity and outcomes for black residents in Wisconsin have fallen below national averages,” a study from UW-Madison acknowledged in 2019. “As a result, black Wisconsinites face stubborn barriers and road blocks that many white people don’t even know are there. Racial disparity in Wisconsin is not inevitable, but closing the gap will require a broad focus and multifaceted approach.”

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