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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Engineering Hall Statue

A timeline of UW-Madison’s fight for a new engineering building

Tensions have risen between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Republican-controlled Legislature as Assembly Speaker Vos indicated cutting DEI funding is his top priority.

The Republican-controlled Legislature denied funding for the University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering building project, which has remained the school’s top budget priority for years. As tensions rise with the Legislature, the future of the College of Engineering building is unknown.

The proposed project would replace the engineering facility on 1410 Engineering Drive, which is separate from Engineering Hall. The building would allow for significant expansion of the engineering program at UW-Madison, providing more research spaces, modernized technology, increased enrollment and extended program offerings. 

At this time, the college can only accept fewer than 20% of its applicants, according to UW-Madison. With a new building, undergraduate enrollment would increase to 5,500 students and graduate enrollment to 2,000 students. 

June 2023: Lawmakers deny funding request for engineering facility

Republican lawmakers on the state budget-writing committee denied a university funding request for the new engineering building in June, a decision met with disappointment and frustration from Democrats and UW-Madison leaders. This is the second biennial state budget where funds have been withheld for the building.

The building was the top budget priority for UW-Madison and was included in a list of projects proposed by Democratic Gov.Tony Evers in Wisconsin’s latest two-year state budget. $150 million of the project’s budgeted $347 million cost was sourced from private gifts and grants.

November 2023: Campaign announced

On Nov. 6, a full-page letter of support for the engineering building appeared in newspapers across the state, urging legislators to advance a new College of Engineering building. 

The engineering building was expected to produce hundreds of new graduates in fields where Wisconsin employers face desperate need for talent, UW-Madison said in a statement.

“We hear repeatedly from employers across Wisconsin that more UW-Madison-trained engineers are needed in a wide array of industries,” College of Engineering Dean Ian Robertson said in a statement. 

Over $100 million has already been pledged by donors. However, the letter warns that delaying the engineering building project to the next state budget would inflate the total cost to $400 million, and donor funds may not necessarily be available by that point.

“All of these donations are entirely contingent upon the state providing its share of the project in the 2023-25 biennium,” Robertson said. “Though we have committed to ambitious fundraising contributions toward the project, moving forward requires the Legislature’s support.”

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November 2023: Vos uses engineering building funding to incentivize DEI budget cuts

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters in November he isn’t concerned about losing engineers if UW-Madison’s engineering project remains unfunded. 

Vos said other UW schools, such as UW-Platteville and UW-Whitewater, have “spots for kids all over the country” to study engineering. 

“I think many of us here went to other campuses, so to think that the only place to get a great engineering degree is by attending UW-Madison, it’s a fallacy,” he said.

However, UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said failing to advance the engineering program would see UW-Madison falling behind other states and competitors. 

Engineering building funding is currently tangled up with other UW sticking points — including diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which Vos wants eliminated.

Mnookin told the Cardinal in September that UW-Madison had plans to expand DEI programs after Vos threatened to prevent pay increases for UW System employees if the programming wasn’t cut. 

In October, Vos escalated his demands and blocked a 6% pay raise over the next two years for UW System employees, saying he wants future legislative oversight over UW System positions. Vos plans to keep this block until DEI programs are eliminated.

“Robin Vos hates UW-Madison because the students on campus are overwhelmingly voting Democratic,” Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told the Cardinal in June. “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.”

November 2023: Fire in Engineering Hall

The College of Engineering has six buildings on campus, but space is limited: equipment and filing cabinets line hallways and in many labs and the only open space is narrow walkways, according to the Wisconsin State Journal

On Nov. 17, a fire broke out at Engineering Hall and led to a full building evacuation. The Madison Fire Department later determined the fire was unintentional and occurred as a result of maintenance on one of the building’s AC units. 

Classes and clubs were relocated for over a week. The building was reopened to all occupants and users on Nov. 27, the university told the Cardinal.

December 2023: Vos, LeMahieu appear to negotiate

However, Vos said at a press conference in November he would move forward with engineering hall plans if he got an agreement on DEI programs and greater authority over UW System positions.

Vos has indicated the construction of a new UW engineering building is contingent upon reaching an agreement on DEI programs, something UW-Madison said they wouldn’t cut and suggested they could potentially grow.

“They’re holding hostage pay raises for these folks because [Vos] is currently more concerned with cutting programs that would include more diverse voices across all of our public system schools,” said Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, said in November. 

Hong visited UW-Madison’s Engineering Hall along with Sen. Kelda Roys on Nov. 8 to advocate for the economic benefits the new building could have for Wisconsin.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told The Associated Press Wednesday that legislators are close to a deal which would release funds for the engineering building and allow the blocked pay raises for UW System employees to take effect. 

Vos has been working with UW System President Jay Rothman for months to “come to a compromise” and that “they’re really close” to making a decision, LeMahieu said. 

However, UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said no deal was imminent. 

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