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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

UW budget brawl intensifies as Republicans eye cuts to diversity initiatives, kill engineering building

Wisconsin Republicans who control the Legislature’s powerful budget committee want "deep cuts' to the UW System’s budget after killing UW-Madison’s flagship engineering building project.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, ignited debate after indicating on June 13 that he wanted the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee (JFC) to completely cut diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) funding across the University of Wisconsin System.

“I hope we have the ability to eliminate that spending. The university should have already chosen to redirect it to something that is more productive and more broadly supported,” Vos said.

Vos later suggested that he’d consult with the Senate to see if cuts may go deeper than his suggested $32 million.

Governor Tony Evers pledged on June 14 to veto any budget not containing the DEI funding, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

The back-and-forth comes a week after $347 million in funding for a new UW-Madison engineering building was pulled from the 2023-2025 capital biennium budget, a move widely criticized by Democrats and UW-Madison officials. 

According to the Journal Sentinel, JFC co-chair Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, suggested a vote on UW funding could come as early as this week.

Engineering building in limbo after GOP cuts

This month's fight is the latest in a long-running budget saga between UW officials, Evers and Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature.

After announcing a ‘significant increase’ for UW System in early January, Evers told The Daily Cardinal he supported university funding requests to revamp the Camp Randall indoor sports complex — nicknamed “The Shell” — and build a new engineering building. Evers anticipated they would be approved at that time.

Although Evers called for $1.8 billion to fund the UW building projects, Republicans on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee only approved $950 million, according to Wisconsin Public Radio

Some UW System projects — such as $285 million for the Shell replacement, $231 million for UW-Eau Claire’s science building and $139 million for UW-Stout’s Heritage Hall — were approved by lawmakers.

But the engineering building funding was not included in the capital budget. That sparked outrage among Democrats and university officials, who said a new engineering building was essential to combat the state’s impending workforce shortage.

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“UW-Madison will continue to fall further behind other states and competitors like Purdue and Illinois, which have seen significant enrollment growth and investment in their programs and buildings,” Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said in a statement following the budget committee’s vote. 

Ian Robertson, dean of UW-Madison’s College of Engineering, said in the same statement he “repeatedly” hears from Wisconsin employers that “more UW-Madison trained engineers are needed in a wide array of industries.” 

Budget committee member Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told the Cardinal defunding the “obvious slam dunk” engineering project was one of the “stupidest and most reckless decisions" she'd seen in her 20 years in politics.

In response to criticisms, Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, a co-chair of the budget committee, said Republicans “had to reduce an unrealistic capital budget” proposed by the governor, according to The Cap Times

“Where I come from, $2.4 billion is a lot of money,” Born told WPR, referencing the total amount of funds approved for building projects across all state agencies. “I would call this an important historic investment for all of Wisconsin.”

The Daily Cardinal attempted to contact Sen. Howard Markelin, R-Spring Green, the other Republican co-chair of the budget committee. Katy Prange, his chief of staff, said Marklein had no comment in a June 12 email. 

Engineering building part of larger ‘war for talent’

The engineering building funding debate sparked concern among Democrats and UW officials that Republicans were acting “short-sighted” in attacks on the UW System.

“These cuts will be disastrous for our UW System, almost certainly causing cuts to campuses and critical programs statewide, and will only hurt our kids, our state’s economy, and our state’s workforce in the process,” Evers said in a statement. 

Some Democrats more bluntly criticized Vos and suggested electoral motives behind the move.

“What happened is Robin Vos hates UW-Madison because the students on campus are overwhelmingly voting Democratic,” Roys told the Cardinal. “This was about his political vendetta to try to punish UW Madison even though what he's really done is punishing the entire state and our future economy.”

UW-Madison’s College of Engineering is ranked the 8th-best public engineering college and 15th overall in the United States, according to its website

The university estimates its new engineering building will cost $346 million. UW-Madison is raising half the funds from private donors, according to Roys. 

A new, more spacious engineering building would provide 1,000 new engineering students yearly, according to The Cap Times. The investment and enrollment expansion is necessary to keep up with other Big Ten competitors, university leaders claim. 

But Roys and university leaders warn UW-Madison will suffer capacity consequences if it doesn’t expand its engineering program. Limited space to accept qualified engineering students will hinder the consistent pipeline of talent for employers seeking to hire graduates, according to Roys. 

"I think it's unrealistic to expect that Wisconsin is going to have a vibrant economy over the next 10 and 20 years if Republicans and [the] Legislature continue to block progress in the way that they have,” she said. 

And unlike the rest of its Big Ten competitions, UW-Madison can’t fund new building projects on its own without state approval, according to Roys. 

Therefore, even when students, faculty and university leaders agree a project like the engineering building is necessary for future success, they can’t reallocate the university’s funding toward that priority.

“[Republicans] decreased the share of the university's budget from 50% to about between 11% and 15% over the past 40 years. Now, the vast majority of the university's funding does not come from the state,” she said. 

“It makes no logical sense to not fund [the engineering building],” Ald. MGR Govindarajan, a UW-Madison junior who represents District 8 on Madison’s Common Council, told the Cardinal.

“It was the top budget priority for the entire System, so it had student groups, UW-Madison's State Relations team, and UW System's State Relations team all lobbying in support of it,” Govindarajan added.

Republicans fixate gaze on UW’s diversity initiatives 

Cuts to UW-Madison’s engineering building come alongside fiery arguments around DEI offices— programs that broadly promote increased university access for underrepresented students and faculty.

Speaker Vos has characterized the programs as “woke,” racially divisive and a waste of taxpayer money. 

In May, UW System President Jay Rothman announced the elimination of DEI statements for UW job applicants. Rothman’s announcement came on May 11, exactly a week after a May 3 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview with Vos that many saw as suggesting budget cuts for schools with DEI programs. 

"If they want to increase their funding, they have to show they can prioritize things to grow the economy, not grow the racial divide," Vos said in that interview.

Although a budget committee vote on UW System funding was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. June 13, the committee took a recess shortly after and did not reconvene for nearly seven hours. When the committee finally regrouped at 9:30 p.m., it announced UW System funding was cut from the night’s agenda. 

The UW System budget is expected to come up for a vote next week, according to Born, the budget committee co-chair.

Govindarajan sees DEI cuts as part of “the broader goal of limiting certain ideologies on college campuses” given gains the Democratic party has made among college graduates in recent elections.

“What works better than voting suppression? Preventing proper education, because then you can mold people to not be skeptical and not raise questions,” he added.

For Roys, the threat was another attack in an overarching Republican campaign against the UW System.

“At some point, Republican politicians are going to have to decide whether it's more important to invest in the future of Wisconsin's economy and govern the state, or whether they would rather continue pursuing these damaging and dishonest political vendetta against UW,” Roys said. 

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Ava Menkes

Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.

Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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