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Saturday, June 22, 2024
Michael Bernard-Donals, vice provost for faculty and staff, and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is pictured in a studio portrait on Aug. 20, 2014. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Q&A: UW-Madison professor, lobbying group president discusses state funding, DEI

The Daily Cardinal interviewed UW-Madison English professor and PROFS lobbying group president Michael Bernard-Donals on the tenuous position the UW System finds itself in after targeted legislative cuts.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, ignited a months-long debate over state influence on higher education after announcing in May he’d seek to block funding increases to the University of Wisconsin System unless it removes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. 

That announcement, later solidified as a $32 million cut in the 2023-25 biennial budget passed by the state Legislature’s budget-writing committee, is the amount Vos and Republicans estimated the UW System spends on DEI programming over two years.

Separately, Vos later told WisPolitics he’d seek to have the Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER), which he co-chairs with Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, block a planned 4% pay increase for UW System employees unless DEI positions are cut.. 

With UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin opting to instead grow DEI initiatives, decisions need to be made to balance an underfunded budget while continuing to provide quality education. That’s where the Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate (PROFS), comes in.

PROFS was established by the UW-Madison Faculty Senate in 1976 to give faculty a lobbying voice within the Legislature. 

The Daily Cardinal talked with PROFS steering committee president and UW-Madison English professor Michael Bernard-Donals on the organization’s positions surrounding the UW System budget and pay raise disputes. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

UW-Madison is the flagship school for the UW System. How does UW-Madison lead by example for other UW schools in response to these budget cuts that are coming from the Legislature? 

It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. It’s easy to assume the other UW schools look to UW-Madison for guidance, but I don't think it's that easy. Each of our campuses has its own problems, its own challenges [and] its own mission. Because UW-Madison has larger infrastructure and a larger faculty, we're able to sustain an operation like PROFS, whereas other campuses work closer with the UW System to lobby for their own particular needs. That goes without saying because we're the largest of the 13 university campuses in the system.  

We have the largest number of students, faculty and staff. There's a lot of weight that we throw around, and sometimes that's a good thing in that we can speak to some of the larger problems that affect the UW System. But other campuses don't necessarily love that. Questions for resources and proportionality often get asked when it comes down to budget time. 

What are the specific lobbying functions of PROFS, and what initiatives is it targeting right now? 

Our lobbyist, Jack O’Meara, pays close attention to the bills and initiatives that are worked on in the Capitol that affect UW-Madison. A lot of those bills don't just affect UW Madison; they also affect all the other UW System schools and UW System as an entity. He brings that legislation to the attention of the steering committee, and the steering committee meets and discusses that legislation, deciding whether we want to take a position on it. We also have provided written and oral testimony at subcommittee and informational hearings on bills. I testified years ago when a campus speech bill came before the colleges and university committee in the state Assembly. 

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When pieces of legislation come up, sometimes we'll meet with members of subcommittee and committee leadership or with representatives from districts that represent UW-Madison or its students, faculty and staff. We’ll write position papers or post statements to our websites. We try to make our positions clear not just to members of the Legislature but also to members of the public and to our constituents. 

Chancellor Mnookin announced on Oct. 2 that UW-Madison is ready to absorb the $7 million cut. Does PROFS have an official position on that statement? 

We didn't take a position on that statement. That was the first time it was said in a public forum. Most faculty, certainly PROFS, [the] steering committee and board members recognize that UW-Madison does a pretty big manual operation.  

While any cut is never good for us, because of the size of our operation, absorbing a [UW-Madison-specific] cut of $7 million is easier for us to handle than it might be for other smaller campuses. I personally am grateful to Chancellor Mnookin for her willingness and ability to move things around so that $7 million dollar cut is as negligible as it can be. 

Do you feel smaller schools like UW-Oshkosh or UW-Stout have a tougher time dealing with these cuts? 

Well, the sources of funding at UW-Madison are different from the sources of funding at some of the smaller UW campuses. A significant portion of our funding comes from research grants. We also have philanthropic support greater than other campuses. We have more infrastructure so there's more money coming in from fees, housing and athletics. We just have more resources to draw from than the UW schools surviving on the contributions from the state and from tuition. 

Vos stated he’ll return the $32 million if the UW System increases their workforce programs. What’s PROFS perspective on the likelihood of any workforce development program being approved? 

If there’s a workforce development program the UW System has put forward, PROFS hasn't seen it. So, I really can't comment on that. 

Speaker Vos has also made it clear that he has a big problem with DEI initiatives at UW System schools and at UW-Madison in particular. That $32 million is no accident. You know, that figure is what he believes UW-Madison spends on the DEI initiatives, [though I’m] not sure where he came up with the figure. He was responsible for a budget that would cut $32 million from the UW System, but [would] also eliminate 188 positions that he identified as DEI positions.  

So, we worked with the governor to make clear that we wanted that piece of the budget to be vetoed, and thankfully the governor did veto that part of it. But I think Rep. Vos has a real bee in his bonnet about diversity, so it would surprise me if, even with the presentation of a workforce program, we’d ever see that money because it seems, in Rep. Vos’ mind, to be tied to DEI. 

On Oct. 3, there was a strike by the UW-Madison Labor Council related to these cuts, and I was wondering if PROFS joined. Would they join a future strike? What are your thoughts on that? 

Well, PROFS isn't a union. We’re interested in labor issues and the healthy workplace of UW faculty. That strike was announced very late yesterday, so we couldn’t take a position or organize in support of that. I won't speak for PROFS, but I sympathize with the demonstrators because some of the UW System schools are in rough shape. A lot of that has to do with the need to [expend] reserve funds that the Legislature had a hissy fit about 10-12 years ago. They forced UW System campuses to [expend] those reserves. Now, when the UW System schools need the reserves to make themselves whole, it’s not there anymore. So, I’m deeply sympathetic for [UW] System schools which must furlough or lay people off because they can't balance their budgets. 

Do you think future strikes would be planned by PROFS? Should these budget disputes continue? 

Well, like I said, PROFS isn’t a union, so we can’t organize strikes. Nor does the UW faculty have a faculty union. I know PROFS works with the local AAUP Chapter, The American Association of University Professors. Also, [we’re] not a union, but [we do] closely monitor labor and employment issues. So, if you're asking if PROFS would support a labor action of some kind, I think it would depend on the situation. But like I said, I do have a lot of sympathy for the employees at the other university campuses. 

The budget cut includes a 4% pay raise. How is PROFS working to keep that 4% pay raise while also negotiating with the UW System budget? 

The pay plan is separate from other items in the budget. So, the pay plan comes from a separate fund. Those two things are fiscally somewhat unrelated. Here's the thing though: Gov. Evers’ budget included a larger pay plan increase for UW employees. The Legislature reduced the amounts to 4% in the first year and 2% in the second year.  

That was passed in the budget and now the Joint Committee on Employee Relations must take action on that. [Vos’] quote was “they're not getting a nickel until they address the problems with DEI.” Again, he's got a real thing about DEI. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the reasons they haven't acted on the pay plan is because of Robin Vos’ allergy to diversity. So, we've worked with legislators in Dane County and leadership to make our case for the need for the pay plan.  

We live in an inflationary context. Inflation was 9% [in 2022]. A four and a two [percent increase] isn't going to make up for the effects of inflation undergone over the last year. It particularly hurts employees. We are the faculty lobby, but we recognize there are lower paid employees who were depending on a 6% increase over the next two years and for whom that's going to make a much more significant effect than it might make for faculty who are relatively well compensated.  

It doesn't help anybody this is delayed. The worst-case scenario is [JCOER] doesn't take any action, following Rep. Vos’ lead. PROFS is working hard to talk with folks to make the case that this is something that's needed, and the Legislature passes in its budget. 

I’m no economist, but if you tracked the real buying power of a UW employee salary [over] the last three or four years, you’d see that buying power drops significantly over the last year-and-a-half. Even a 6% increase over two years will leave the UW employees with less buying power than two to three years ago. 

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