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

UW Regents narrowly reject deal to restructure DEI positions in exchange for state funding

UW System President Jay Rothman and UW Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin speak to reporters over Zoom Friday, announcing the deal struck between the UW System and Republican legislators.
UW System President Jay Rothman and UW Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin speak to reporters over Zoom Friday, announcing the deal struck between the UW System and Republican legislators.

The UW Board of Regents Saturday narrowly rejected a deal that would have freed up crucial state funding in exchange for changes to DEI staffing.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, held up key UW funding over his concerns that universities put too much focus on DEI — which he called part of left-wing indoctrination on campuses.

"That’s really what DEI is — for people on the left, it’s become their new religion," Vos said at a press conference in June. "They no longer go to church on Sunday, but boy, are they trying to make sure everybody is evangelized to that there’s one acceptable viewpoint."

The UW System’s DEI staff and initiatives are aimed at helping students who are underrepresented on college campuses. That includes racial and ethnic minorities, veterans, and those with disabilities.

Vos blocked 6% pay raises for UW employees and funding for a much-needed engineering school project at UW-Madison.

On Friday, UW System President Jay Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced that they had reached a deal with Vos.

"The agreement we reached is the result of an arduous process," Rothman said. "While it funds the priorities of the Universities of Wisconsin, we have also made compromises to get to this agreement."

The compromises include freezing hiring for administrative and DEI-related positions for three years and restructuring a third of the UW System’s DEI jobs to focus more generally on student success. Rothman emphasized that no one would lose their job.

"Those positions are being reimagined into an area where they are focused predominately on student success," Rothman said. "As we have made clear publicly, our commitment to DEI remains. Diversity and inclusion are core values of our universities. But we are also open to changing how some of those positions can more directly benefit student retention and graduation."

The deal would also eliminate a hiring initiative at UW-Madison focused on increasing faculty diversity. And it would require UW-Madison to seek philanthropic funding for a faculty position focused on conservative thought.

In exchange, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature would release about $800 million to the UW System, including the money for employee pay raises and the UW-Madison engineering building.

The UW Board of Regents met Saturday morning to vote on the agreement. It was immediately clear that many were against it.

"You are selling our minorities out for millions of dollars," said Student Regent Evan Brekus. "There is no number that makes that right. As a student regent from a Native American family majoring in Indigenous Studies, I will be voting no because I believe the time is past for minorities to be deprioritized."

Other regents worried this deal could set a troubling precedent, in which lawmakers hold up funding in exchange for other concessions from the UW System.

But Regent Ashok Rai said the deal was an opportunity for the UW System not to give up on DEI, but to rethink that work.

"This is an opportunity to do better," Rai said. "No jobs are being lost. It’s an opportunity to create more conversation, which I do believe we need."

When it came time to vote, the regents narrowly rejected the deal with nine votes against and eight in favor. That means the pay raises for UW employees and funding for the UW-Madison engineering building are still up the air.

“It’s a shame they’ve denied employees their raises and the almost $1 billion investment that would have been made across the UW system," Vos said in a statement. "All so they could continue their ideological campaign to force students to believe only one viewpoint is acceptable on campus.”

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has a pending lawsuit against Republicans over the pay issue, saying they are obstructing government functions by withholding pay raises that were already approved in the state budget.

Editor's note: WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee. WUWM staff would be affected by the raises. This story may be updated.


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