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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

A $32 million cut aimed at DEI could add to ongoing financial struggles in the UW System

UW System schools, including UW-Milwaukee, have struggled with declining enrollment and stagnant state funding. Now, they may face a $32 million cut aimed at DEI programs.
Emily Files
UW System schools, including UW-Milwaukee, have struggled with declining enrollment and stagnant state funding. Now, they may face a $32 million cut aimed at DEI programs.

The Wisconsin Assembly and Senate are voting on the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget this week. One point of contention between Republicans and Gov. Evers is a proposed $32 million cut to the UW System.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says the cut would defund about 200 positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI.

"For people on the left, [DEI] has become their new religion," said Vos. "They no longer go to church on Sunday, but boy are they trying to make sure that everybody is evangelized to on campus. There’s only one acceptable viewpoint."

UW President Jay Rothman pleaded with lawmakers not to cut state funding.

"You can not have the kind of healthy economy we all want without a strong university system," said Rothman. "Let me put it even more bluntly – if we are going to have a vibrant Wisconsin, you need to invest in the UW System."

Rothman says cuts could lead to more closures of small campuses. The system closed its lowest-enrolled 2-year campus, UW-Platteville Richland, this year.

It could also disrupt the UW’s new free tuition “promise” for students from low-income families.

Jason Stein researches higher education issues for the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. He says there are some bright spots in the UW System's financial outlook. The Legislature is funding 4% and 2% raises for UW employees in the next two years. And most notably, the Legislature removed a freeze on in-state tuition, allowing the system to raise tuition by 5% in the upcoming year.

The University of Wisconsin System is increasing tuition for in-state undergraduate students by about 5% next school year.

"But at the same time, there's a real question about whether or not the university can sustain programs like the tuition promise for students, and what that means for higher education in the state," Stein says.

Stein authored a report earlier this year that showed Wisconsin ranked toward the bottom out of 50 states in its per-pupil funding for public universities.

Falling enrollment, stagnant state funding and the longstanding tuition freeze have squeezed UW campus budgets.

A new report raises questions about whether the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee can maintain its Tier 1 research status and its mission to serve disadvantaged students, under current financial conditions.

Students have felt the effects in their tuition bills, with schools unable to provide significant increases in institutional aid.

"There's an impact of financial aid dollars not going as far as they did just a few years ago before we had this significant uptick in inflation," Stein says.

The UW System is seeking to increase financial aid through a tuition "promise" program that guarantees free tuition for students whose families earn $62,000 or less.

The system is self-funding the program in 2023-24 and asked the state for $24.5 million to pay for it in 2024-2025. Gov. Evers supported the tuition promise, but Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee didn't approve any funding for the program.

The Legislature is expected to finalize the state budget this week and send it to Evers for approval or veto.

Evers has threatened to veto the budget if it includes a $32 million cut to the UW System. But the Joint Finance Committee added a provision that would allow the system to recoup the $32 million, if it presents a plan to use the money for workforce development, rather than DEI.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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