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UW-Milwaukee students worry about what changes to DEI initiatives might mean for the future

The Roberto Hernandez Center at UWM is one example of DEI efforts that are being targeted in a deal approved by the Board of Regents.
Emily Files
The Roberto Hernandez Center at UWM is one example of DEI efforts that are being targeted in a deal approved by the Board of Regents.

Last December, the UW System Board of Regents accepted a deal to make changes to its DEI programs in exchange for funding for employee pay raises.

UW System President Jay Rothman negotiated the deal with Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Vos had previously held up the $800 million in UW System funding for months over his concerns that universities put too much focus on DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion.

The deal froze hiring for DEI positions for three years and required that the UW System restructure a third of DEI jobs to focus on success for all students.

At schools like UWM, DEI programs support a broad range of students who are underrepresented in higher education.

That includes veterans, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

But Republican lawmakers, such as Vos, see DEI as racially divisive and part of left-wing indoctrination.

“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 that everybody is evangelized on campus that there's only one acceptable viewpoint.

After Vos and the UW System reached the deal to restructure some DEI jobs, Vos promised it was a first step to eliminate DEI initiatives throughout the state.

The targeting of DEI programs is especially concerning for students of color.

Victor Chavez is a junior at UWM, and he says the school’s cultural centers provide academic and social support for underrepresented students.

“When I did find out that it was approved it did hurt me a little bit just because I frequent the Roberto Hernandez Center and the Black [Student] Cultural Center,” Chavez says in response to the targeting of DEI. “But all of these cultural centers are so important to students because a lot of them are a place not just for culture, but for similar backgrounds [too].”

Chavez says UWM’s cultural centers serve as a third place, an area to socialize and connect with others, outside of school and home.

“I hate to think that years after when all of us are gone, and we'd still do our best to support this place, that it's not going to be enough,” Chavez adds. “And there are kids in the future who are not going to be able to experience like what we've been able to experience.”

Another student, who didn’t want to share her name, says UWM’s cultural centers have been a highlight of her college experience.

She says one major reason she transferred from UW-Oshkosh to UW-Milwaukee is because of the support UWM offers to students of color like herself.

If Vos follows through on his promise to get rid of more DEI initiatives, she says she worries about how that would impact diversity-based scholarships.

“I am barely going to be able to pay for this semester,” the student says. “I know I'm not the only one who might not be able to continue their education. If this change actually takes place and a lot of scholarships and grants and opportunities are taken away from us, I think that's going to lead us to where we were before — just the same people getting the same privileges and the same people who are not going to have a voice.”

Another student, who didn’t want to share his name because of the controversy surrounding the DEI issue, is a freshman and veteran at UWM.

He says he frequently visits the Black Student Cultural Center and the Military and Veterans Resource Center, but the Black Student Cultural Center has helped him find community on the predominately white campus.

“I've been in areas where African Americans have been the majority and whites have been the minority,” the freshman student says. “It wasn't until then that they understood the power and inclusion in everybody having their own personal areas. But when you are the majority, especially in America, it's so easy to look over the needs of others. People don't see it as a big deal.”

The freshman student says advisors at UWM’s Black Student Cultural Center are especially resourceful and have helped him work through situations where he’s experienced “backhanded racism” by class peers and mistreatment in group projects.

“I don't know. It's just very disappointing,” the freshman student says of the UW System deal and Republican lawmakers’ goal to get rid of DEI efforts. “But I'm not surprised. Because it's really just another day of being a minority and people will never get it. It's really just another day. It’s just one more thing we can't have it’s one more thing they have to take away.”

It’s unclear what DEI jobs and programs will change under the legislative deal.

In a statement to WUWM, UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch says campuses have until 2026 to restructure DEI positions.

UW System President Jay Rothman has also said no employees will lose their jobs under the deal and that he’s committed to upholding diversity efforts.

When we reached out to Speaker Vos for a comment on this story, his team directed us to his December 8th statement which says in part “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.”

Victor Chavez, the junior at UWM, says he worries about what the school might look like in years to come.

“I would be proud of the work that I've done here, but I wouldn't be proud of what it becomes if restructuring [happens], which I think restructuring basically means less resources available,” Chavez says.

“I've helped paint these walls, I've helped choose out decorations, I've really helped to make sure that this space is welcoming to a lot of people along with my other friends. And if I come back in like 10 years, and this is three offices and a bunch of empty chairs and boxes for storage — it's gonna break my heart. Because all of these great memories and great effort we put into this was just for us and nobody else. I don't know, that feels very selfish, and such a definitive end to something I feel like should last as long as this University is open.”

Chavez also says he thinks scaling back DEI programs will only hurt UW schools more — as they struggle to increase enrollment and funding.

“How can students of color feel comfortable at a place that's actively reducing places and resources that are meant to help them?” he says.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee. WUWM employees are affected by the pay raise referred to in this story.

Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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