A controversial free speech survey. Threats to hundreds of diversity positions. And millions of dollars cut from an already-strained university budget.
The University of Wisconsin System braved a rollercoaster year of criticisms levied against its colleges, largely by Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature, in an effort to prevent a $32 million funding cut.
But two months after the next two-year state budget was signed — with UW System funding cuts included — it’s still unclear how UW campuses will address budget shortfalls.
For University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow, it’s the latest chapter in a series of GOP attacks against public higher education, sending university leaders through hoops to run their campuses on shoestring budgets.
“This is the uncertainty,” Gow said. “We rely on a certain level of support from the state, and if that money is cut, that creates real problems.”
Gow, who retired on Aug. 31, has acclimated to the influence of the state legislature over his 17 years in the position.
His greatest challenge over those years was receiving state support from a Legislature that, in his eyes, has too much decision-making power, he told the Cardinal.
“I think if you did an opinion poll, and you asked the public, ‘Do you think it's a good idea for legislators to determine what is talked about on college campuses?’ most people would say, ‘That's not a good idea,’” Gow said.
That holds even with sympathetic officials in the executive branch. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called Gow to congratulate him shortly after his retirement announcement. Gow told the Cardinal that Evers “understands the importance of funding higher education” but "can’t do it alone.”
“I'm a little concerned about the direction that some people in the Legislature want to go,” Gow said.
Republican lawmakers in recent years haven’t been afraid to flex their powerful legislative majority.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, abruptly suggested the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices in May, calling them “an institute of indoctrination.”
After the Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved a $32 million funding cut that initially included 188 DEI-related positions later restored by a partial veto from Gov. Tony Evers, the committee dangled a carrot in front of UW System schools in the form of an ultimatum to restore the $32 million in funding — if campuses who request it agreed to remove DEI offices and redirect funds toward workforce development initiatives.
Budget committee member Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told the Cardinal UW System campuses are forced to make “impossible choices” at the moment, which include furloughing staffers and raising costs for students.
UW System President Jay Rothman has maintained that he holds unwavering support for DEI programs despite budget cuts. But less than a week after Vos pledged to remove DEI offices from UW schools, Rothman banned diversity statements from job applications at UW System schools.
Additionally, Rothman said at an Aug. 22 special UW Board of Regents meeting that recouping funding through a workforce development proposal is something the UW System cannot plan for. He said UW campuses across the state have had to adjust budgets and institute cost-cutting measures, including layoffs.
The Board of Regents approved a budget that marked 10 out of 13 campuses projected to be in a deficit by the end of the school year.
Nonetheless, UW-La Crosse remains one of the campuses that avoided a deficit. Gow told the Cardinal that between Vice Chancellor Bob Hetzel’s efforts to address finances and UW-La Crosse’s steady enrollment, the school has maintained an above-water financial position.
And the present state of DEI offices remains a lingering question. The Cardinal contacted all 13 non-secondary UW System campuses and asked them if there had been any layoffs or current or planned changes to their DEI offices as a result of the legislative cut.
Of those campuses, most redirected to UW System Relations Director Mark Pitsch, and some did not respond to the initial inquiry. A representative for UW-Green Bay declined to comment on behalf of the university.
Pitsch provided the Cardinal with an email statement outlining the university’s commitment to the workforce development proposal but gave no answer to repeated questions about layoffs at campus DEI offices.
Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, sits on the budget-writing committee. She told the Cardinal that UW System campuses are forced to make “impossible choices” at the moment that include furloughing staffers and raising costs for students.
DEI programs, Roys said, are necessary for universities — a key entry point for Wisconsin workers — to foster a welcoming environment. To remove those programs, which Roys noted are also used at many large corporations, would be “functionally like abandoning their mission.”
Roys believes the UW System won’t cut DEI despite funding cuts and GOP opposition.
However, she said the budget cut is part of a decades-long Republican “war on public higher education.”
“[DEI isn’t] something you’re going to throw away in the garbage because Robin Vos is holding you hostage,” she added.
Gow added that people misunderstand the purpose of DEI programs. To Gow, those programs exist to recruit, retain and support traditionally underrepresented students and assist in growing enrollment.
He struggled to find reason in the restoration effort that might allow UW to recoup lost funds. The workforce development proposal and the request to cut DEI offices should not be coupled together, he said, since DEI itself is workforce development.
He called it “something of a mystery.”
“They’re saying, ‘We want you to end DEI. But then we’ll give you the money back if you give us some ideas around workforce development,’” Gow said. “I’m not sure what the thinking was there. I don’t see the logic.”
For Gow, opposition to DEI is not the only issue under scrutiny.
Across UW campuses, there have been continual challenges to address free expression while answering to the emotional impacts unrestricted speech has on some students. But after a fall 2022 Student Views on Freedom of Speech survey was released, rising controversy emerged across UW System schools.
Republicans utilized the free speech survey to support claims that conservative students self-censor in classroom settings and campuses lack conservative faculty.
Gow had his own qualms with the survey.
“It's just so vague that people say, ‘I'm self-censoring.’ I don't really know what that means, frankly,” he said.
UW-Madison’s Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin has navigated waves of free speech disputes, such as the presence of antisemitic chalkings during the first day of classes in fall 2022 or responding to a video of a white UW-Madison student saying violent racist remarks toward Black people in early May.
Five years ago, Gow faced his own free speech conundrum — backlash from community members and UW System administration after inviting adult film actress Nina Hartley to campus for a talk on sexuality at UW-La Crosse.
Gow was surprised at the response toward what he viewed as an “opportunity to experience free speech and expression.” At the time, former UW System President Ray Cross characterized the invitation as “poor judgment” from Gow, who’d later be denied a pay raise from the UW System Board of Regents that year.
To Gow, Cross’ response sharply contrasted stronger defenses of free speech issues after Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the issue.
“The fact that [Cross] didn't support what I did speaks for itself,” he said.
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 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.