Wisconsin university system reaches deal with Republicans that would scale back diversity positions

A view of a building on University of Wisconsin Madison campus.
An outside view of Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin on October 12, 2013, in Madison, Wis.
Mike McGinnis | Getty Images 2013

Faced with a demand from Republican lawmakers to axe diversity initiatives or go without raises and other funding, Universities of Wisconsin officials announced Friday that they’ve agreed to freeze hiring for diversity positions, drop an affirmative action faculty hiring program at UW-Madison and create a position at the flagship campus focused on conservative thought.

Conservatives have long criticized the UW system as a bastion of liberalism. 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.

“In recent years we’ve seen a growing emphasis on concepts that amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination on our campuses,” Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos, who brokered the deal with UW, 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.”

Republican lawmakers in June refused to release funding for a new engineering building at UW-Madison and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in October blocked pay raises for employees across the system until it cut spending on positions that promote diversity. The state budget that Republicans approved this summer included money to cover a 6 percent raise over the next two years, but Vos refused to allocate the dollars.

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Vos and UW officials have been working behind the scenes on a compromise, however. Under the deal released Friday, the system would freeze 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 eliminate any statements supporting diversity on student applications.

UW-Madison would create a position that focuses on conservative political thought. The position would be funded through donations and scrap a program designed to recruit diverse faculty.

UW-Madison would be forced to accept applicants who finish in the top 5 percent of their class at a Wisconsin high school. Applicants who finish in the top 10 percent of their class at a Wisconsin high school would be guaranteed admission at regional campuses.

In exchange, lawmakers would release money to fund the pay raise for UW employees. They also would release about $200 million UW-Madison officials say they need to build a new engineering building on campus as well as money to renovate several dorms on the flagship campus.

Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman during a news conference Friday called the negotiations difficult and the end product a compromise. But he said the deal will help the system continue to function.

Regents are expected to sign off on the deal during a hastily called meeting Saturday morning. Large sections of the deal will require legislative approval. Republicans control both the Assembly and Senate. Whatever they approve would go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who could sign it into law or veto it.

Brian Radday, a spokesperson for the state Senate’s Republican majority leader, Devin LeMahieu, didn’t immediately respond to an email inquiring about the deal’s prospects in that chamber. LeMahieu told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this week that he believes the new engineering building should be built and the state has the money to fund UW raises.

Asked for comment on the deal Friday via email, Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback pointed to remarks the governor made on Tuesday in which he told WISN-TV that withholding UW pay raises is “B.S.” and “really obnoxious.” She didn’t offer any comments on the deal itself.

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 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.