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Thursday, June 13, 2024
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University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin speaks to students at a Dec. 14, 2023 student media roundtable.

Mnookin defends compromise as funding deal, free speech divide UW-Madison

The Daily Cardinal spoke with UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin about the challenges of divided government, free speech and student engagement during her second student media roundtable.

Ice cream socials, visits to cranberry farms and tours of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus punctuated Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin’s first year at the helm of the state’s flagship institution.

But that was before a grueling state budget season threw her into the thorny realm of Wisconsin politics at the beginning of her second year as chancellor. 

“This has been a difficult and challenging process,” Mnookin said Thursday at a roundtable with student media.

Mnookin’s second meeting with student reporters came after a week and a half of delays as she and UW System President Jay Rothman hammered out a sweeping funding deal with state Republican lawmakers. 

The deal, which promised to restructure one-third of the UW System’s DEI positions in exchange for building funds and pay raises for over 30,000 system employees, ignited tenacious opposition from some students, staff and faculty, especially those from marginalized groups.

The deal passed the UW Board of Regents late Wednesday in a rare divided vote, the regents’ second in five days after they initially voted down the deal.

Mnookin acknowledged that the deal, in her view, wasn’t perfect. 

“They were already succeeding in holding us hostage before the deal,” she said.

She said campus diversity initiatives following the deal would not be “business as usual” but reinforced the cap on DEI hires and restructuring of some positions did not change UW-Madison’s “core values” on diversity.

“There's a commitment to do some engagement and reimagining how we go about this,” she added. 

No ‘formal engagement’ with students in negotiation process

For some watching from the sidelines, the deal intensified concerns that Wisconsin’s state university system was capitulating to a political orchestra of backroom deals and hushed negotiations bent to the whims of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

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Mnookin said the negotiations with Vos “did not involve formal engagement with the student community.” 

The only student Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor could confirm was briefed about the deal before it went public was Kevin Jacobson, UW-Madison student government chair. Neither Mnookin nor Reesor indicated a student of color was briefed.

Reesor + Mnookin
University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin listening alongside Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor during a December 14, 2023 meeting with student media.

And while Mnookin was aware Vos said the deal was his “first step” to eliminate DEI positions across the UW System, she said future demands from the Legislature were “a potential concern with or without the agreement.”

“As long as we have a divided government process,” Mnookin said, “I would hope that we can find ways to do that more successfully through the regular budget process in the future rather than taking months and months afterwards.”

“I do believe that it was important to attempt to find some compromise in the interest of our current students, our future students or employees, and the state of Wisconsin, whose citizens benefit from having a strong flagship university,” she added.

Scholarships, department funds not on chopping block in UW deal

UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin speaks with student media, including The Daily Cardinal, in Bascom Hall on Dec. 14, 2023.

Reesor dispelled student “rumors” around the deal. She said student organization funding, student scholarships, and program and department funding will not be cut.

“This is not part of this agreement,” Reesor reiterated.

A provision in the deal requires the UW System support adoption of a statute, Assembly Bill 140, that would require UW-Madison to guarantee admission to the top 5% of high school graduates in Wisconsin who apply via early action admissions.

Mnookin said she doesn’t anticipate the deal would impact the rate at which out-of-state students or students from Minnesota, which has a reciprocity agreement with Wisconsin, would be admitted to UW-Madison.

Mnookin weighs in on Israel-Hamas war

Mnookin acknowledged the divisive climate created after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel, which has sparked various protests and conversations regarding free speech on university campuses.

It’s part of what she termed a “tough time” for university leaders and presidents, particularly amid the resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill. Magill resigned after she and Harvard President Claudine Gay, along with leaders of two other Ivy League institutions, faced criticism for answers on antisemitism in testimony to U.S. Congress. 

“I condemn genocide in any form. Any calls for genocide,” she said. 

As for the congressional hearing, Mnookin thought “we do better, in these cases, if we actually try to engage with each other instead of having efforts to pose questions to which it's almost impossible to give an accurate and satisfying answer.”

Mnookin said it’s important to recognize that “there are tons in places where some degree of discomfort is part of the educational process, right? If you don't sometimes hear arguments and points of view with which you disagreed, you may not be as strong at being able to deeply understand your own perspective.”

“But that is no justification or excuse for truly hateful speech, but even a good deal of hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Mnookin added. 

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