On Saturday, the Universities of Wisconsin (UW) Board of Regents narrowly rejected a compromise proposal with Republicans in the state legislature that would have allowed an already-approved increase in staff salaries throughout the university system, but which would have done so at the expense of support for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.
The deal, which had been brokered between Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and UW President Jay Rothman, was rejected by nine members of the regents board, with eight voting in favor of it. The plan had called for a “reimagining” of 43 DEI positions across the system, and would disallow new DEI positions from being created over the next three years; in turn, Vos and the GOP legislature would allow $800 million in state funds to go to the UW, mostly to pay for an increase of compensation for instructors and support staff throughout the system, and to fund a select number of building projects as well.
The Republican-led state legislature, led by Vos, has for years tried to divest DEI programs, portraying them wrongly as attempts to indoctrinate students to accept a singular opinion on subjects. Vos, for example, recently (and wrongly) characterized such programs and aid to students as forcing them “to believe only one point of view is worthy of discussion on campus.” In a statement following the vote, Vos and other Republican leaders reiterated that mischaracterization of DEI programs, calling it a “shame” that staffers across the UW wouldn’t get a raise “all so they could continue their ideological campaign to force students to believe only one viewpoint is acceptable on campus.”
It’s worth noting that the state legislature has already agreed to fund the pay increases for UW staff, and passed a cost-of-living increase of 4 percent for 35,000 employees at UW campuses across the state as part of the state budget earlier this year. However, state law requires final approval by a single state legislative committee before that increase can be implemented, allowing Vos and his GOP cohorts to block the funds they’ve already agreed to spend, in an attempt to defund DEI programs.
As a result of the vote, Vos, appearing on a radio program in the state on Monday morning, indicated he wouldn’t be open to renegotiating.
“We’re not changing one thing in this deal,” he said.
The decision by Vos to refuse to budge on the issue is particularly telling, Wisconsin-based journalist Dan Shafer noted on X, as his inaction on addressing disparities in the state has been incredibly noticeable.
“The overlooked story underlying all of the Vos controversy over DEI is that under the Republican Assembly Speaker’s leadership, Wisconsin has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation,” Shafer said, sharing nationwide rankings demonstrating how the state has failed to address problems relating to inequity.
Gov. Tony Evers (D), who voiced support for the outcome of the vote but called on negotiations to resume, is also suing the state legislature, arguing that requiring the legislative committee to approve the disbursement of funds when they have already been approved is illegal.
Members of the regents board who voted against the deal defended their actions.
“I can not and will not vote to set the system back,” Regent Joan Prince said.
“I don’t like this precedent” that the deal-making process creates, Regent Dana Wachs said. “We need to make this a welcoming environment.”
Both prior to and following the vote, critics described the deal as unfair and deeply harmful to students who utilized DEI programs and to staff across the several UW campuses.
“There was no opportunity for input [before the vote] from the folks who are going to be most impacted — our students, our faculty, staff, alumni, families, community members,” state Rep. Francesca Hong (D) said.
You cannot put a price tag on the culture and the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. No matter how much you try to rebrand it, the precedent that this would set, that we don’t prioritize this, that we don’t prioritize our students who are coming from underserved backgrounds, would have generational consequences.
State Rep. Samba Baldeh (D) agreed with those sentiments prior to the regents’ vote.
“Our diversity makes us a stronger society and enriches our communities, and nothing is worth trading for that,” Baldeh said.
Also prior to the vote, students and staff across the UW system described the agreement in disparaging terms.
“It’s really frustrating, I think, to see UW system administration agree to a deal that effectively limits these kinds of resources,” said Jon Shelton, UW-Green Bay professor of democracy and justice studies.
Karime Galaviz, president of the Student Government Association who regularly utilizes multicultural and disability resources through DEI programs that are provided by UW, explained: “If it wasn’t for these resources, I don’t think I would be the leader or the person that I am today.”
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