Tackling Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs has posed a considerable challenge for Wisconsin state lawmakers and University of Wisconsin System leaders.
UW System diversity programs aim to cultivate a student body that reflects diverse backgrounds while ensuring greater enrollment opportunities for historically underrepresented groups, according to UW’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
But discussions about UW System’s DEI program moved to the forefront of budget negotiations after the UW System was projected to be in a $60 million deficit by the end of the 2023-24 academic year.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos characterized diversity programs as a waste of taxpayer money that further racial divides, according to the Associated Press.
Vos estimated DEI initiatives cost the UW System $32 million per year and proposed that that same amount be eliminated from the UW System’s budget despite Wisconsin having a record-high budget surplus of nearly $7 billion.
“The university has gone from being an institute of higher education to an institute of indoctrination," Vos said in May. “If they want to increase their funding, they have to show they can prioritize things to grow the economy, not grow the racial divide.”
How did Democrats and UW leaders respond?
Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic lawmakers swiftly rebuked Vos’ statements.
Evers said that the cuts were an example of “Republicans’ decade-long war on higher education institutions in our state” in a statement on Twitter.
UW System President Jay Rothman testified to state lawmakers in May that DEI programs are not only about race, but they also support students from diverse economic backgrounds, veterans and disabled students.
“We’re hopeful we can make our point that why investment in the UW system is an investment in the people of the state of Wisconsin,” Rothman said to PBS Wisconsin.
How do DEI programs impact Wisconsin’s economy?
A Minnesota Department of Labor study shows DEI programs have economic benefits for the communities and businesses they are used in, and companies which fail to implement DEI policies find themselves lagging behind competition, unable to attract and retain quality workers.
The same is true for retention of students and future workers within the UW System, leaders say.
Lawmakers whose districts contain UW campuses also spoke out against Vos’ proposed DEI cut, including city of Madison alder and University of Wisconsin-Madison student MGR Govindarajan.
Govindarajan said cuts to DEI initiatives eliminate an array of beneficial jobs and positions.
”Some of [the DEI positions] might have been therapists and counselors who are affinity group related, or it might have been student affairs staff members who try to connect with marginalized students who otherwise would not have a voice on campus,” he told The Daily Cardinal.
UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin expressed that, by cutting DEI funding, the Legislature is hurting not only the UW System but the state of Wisconsin as a whole.
“Employers consistently tell us they want and expect students to have experience working with people from diverse backgrounds, and research also shows that diverse teams tend to make better decisions,” Mnookin said in a statement.
Did the cuts stay in the final state budget?
When the state budget passed in July, Evers took action to limit some of the effects of the cuts to DEI initiatives.
Evers issued a veto that prevented the removal of 188 DEI-related system positions, saying that these positions could be used for any purpose by the UW System. The $32 million budget cut remained in the budget as a separate provision.
“Robin Vos has had it out for the UW System since he's been in public office,” state Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told The Daily Cardinal. "It's particularly unconscionable at a time [when] we have a $7 billion surplus and a massive workforce shortage.”
When asked to comment on how DEI initiatives would be funded in the wake of the budget cut, multiple UW campuses said that comment would have to come from the UW System.
“We are working with chancellors to present a plan to the budget committee for use of the $32 million they are holding in reserve. We remain committed to our efforts to ensure student success,” the emailed statement reads from Mark Pitsch.
How diverse are UW schools?
Data indicates a decrease in enrollment and retention of underrepresented and minority students, which includes students of color, first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds. These students are typically supported by DEI efforts in educational settings.
Between 2012 and 2022, the amount of African American students enrolled as a percentage of total enrollment decreased from 3.1% to 2.9% across the system, according to the UW System’s Accountability Dashboard. This trend continued for nearly all students of color except Hispanic students, which saw a large increase in enrollment percentages.
Graduation retention rates for underrepresented students have also declined. The rate of students that graduated in five years or less between 2007 and 2016 dropped by 8%, whereas it decreased by 6% for students who were not underrepresented in the same period.
These cuts to DEI programming and funding in UW System also come amongst possible campus closures and cuts to staffing due, in part, to budget shortfalls.
State support for the UW System has gone from over 40% of the UW budget to somewhere around 15% over the past 40 years, according to Roys. She said funding from the state budget is paramount for public universities, which usually lack the donor networks and private endowments of private universities.
“The UW has been trying to do more with less, especially in recent years, given the very deep cuts that were made under the previous Republican administration,” Roys said.
Gabriella Hartlaub is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics and life & style reporting.