Wisconsin University System Takes Republican Deal

The university system will receive $800 million to be used for employee raises.

Following six months of debate between the University of Wisconsin System and the Republican Party, a compromise was reached between the two parties. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the university system will receive $800 million to be used for employee raises, which the university system had been advocating for, as well as building projects, including a new engineering building for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In exchange for these endowments, the university system has agreed to restructure its diversity positions into positions that purport to serve all students at the university as well as a hiring freeze on diversity positions at its schools. 

The university campuses view diversity, equity, and inclusion positions as critical to their mission, say school officials, as they seek to serve a wide range of students, while the state’s Republican legislators see those positions as wasteful and or divisive. University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman told the Journal-Sentinel that the change does not signal a dissolution of the university system’s core values, saying, “This is an evolution, and this is a change moving forward. But it does not in any way deviate from our core values of diversity (and) inclusion.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Burlington, was a key figure in the negotiations. He first called for the elimination of all DEI positions at the system’s schools in May 2023, and in August, Vos kept University of Wisconsin pay raises from going into effect even though they had already been approved by the Wisconsin Legislature. Vos crowed in a statement after the compromise was announced, “In recent years we’ve seen a growing emphasis on concepts that amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination on our campuses.”

Vos added, “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.”

Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has not been fond of the way Vos has gone about his business, going as far as to call freezing the pay raises “B.S.” as well as essentially referring to the Wisconsin Republican Party’s actions towards the state’s universities as a declaration of war.

The Legislative Black Caucus of Wisconsin also weighed in, criticizing the university system for essentially accepting buildings in return for killing the DEI department. Caucus chair Rep. Dora Drake released a statement, saying, “We ask the question, who was at the table making negotiations for our black and brown students on campus? 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’ interests even considered?”

Drake continued, “The true irony is that this deal includes the creation of a position dedicated to Conservative thought that is funded through philanthropic measures. This is a text-book example of how political agendas are pushed in our higher education systems to silence others. The result of these provisions would create a hostile environment for non-White students and faculty on our campuses.”

To that end, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh professor Vincent Filiak said that the deal not only “sold out” students and faculty of color for some buildings and modest pay raises, but that were it an option, he would have given up his pay increase in solidarity. Filiak told the Journal-Sentinel, “I don’t think you should be held hostage by someone who unilaterally gets to decide what’s happening at a statewide level. That feels like what’s happened here.”

Despite the malcontent around the compromise from students and faculty, University of Wisconsin at Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin stressed that even though some things had to be accepted to get the deal done, the university system is still committed to diversity, telling the Journal-Sentinel, “No one is going to look at this agreement and love every piece of it,” Mnookin said. “But I do think this approach to bridging a divide makes sense. This compromise allows us to hold on to our core values, and that includes our commitment to diversity.”

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