Wisconsin university system gives in, scales back diversity initiatives following GOP demands

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.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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 

“We just 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. “I’d give up my raise if it would have stopped this.”

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

Regents were 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.

The state Senate’s Republican majority leader, Devin 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. He was non-committal on the deal announced Friday, saying in an email to the AP that his caucus will deliberate on it.

Asked for comment Friday via email, Evers spokersperson 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.

Wisconsin university system gives in, scales back diversity initiatives following GOP demands (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)

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.

Rothman said during his news conference that “diverse” stakeholders were involved in the negotiations but did not elaborate. Appearing on a Wisconsin Policy Forum video forum later Friday, he called the deal “evolutionary” and that he hoped the agreement would mend the system’s frayed relationship with Republican legislators.

“I don’t view it as a retreat,” he said.

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