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Saturday, May 18, 2024
Wisconsin Board of Regents

Courtesy of Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison

UW Board of Regents narrowly rejects compromise on DEI for pay raises, engineering building

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents rejected a resolution to restructure DEI positions in exchange for funding for UW System employee pay raises and building projects in a 9-8 vote.

In a rare, razor-thin 9-8 vote, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents rejected a resolution to restructure diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions in exchange for $800 million in funding for UW System employee pay raises and building projects Saturday.

Under the deal, the UW System would have capped hiring for DEI and administrative positions for three years. Around a third of the UW System’s 130 DEI positions would have been restructured into general student success positions. 

Additionally, the resolution would have guaranteed admission to UW-Madison for the top 5% of students from each Wisconsin high school based on GPA rankings. 

In return, the UW System would have received $800 million in funding from the Legislature for systemwide employee pay raises, a new engineering hall for UW-Madison and other UW System building projects — initiatives delayed for months by Republican opposition. 

SEE MORE: UW System reaches deal on DEI positions, pay raises, engineering building

UW System President Jay Rothman said during Saturday’s meeting the deal “is in the best interests of the Universities of Wisconsin.”

“The core values of Universities of Wisconsin around diversity and inclusion are not changing as a result of this action,” Rothman said. “At the same time, we have to look at diversity as a broader concept — we have to be inclusive and belonging to all students from underrepresented groups, but also students of different ideological and religious faiths, veterans, disabled students, first-generation students.”

Rothman said he was "disappointed" but respected the Board of Regents' decision in a Twitter post Saturday afternoon.

The vote comes after months of negotiations between Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and UW System officials. 

Vos told Wispolitics Saturday the rejected deal was the Legislature’s “best and final offer.” 

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“It’s a shame they’ve denied employees their raises and the almost $1 billion investment that would have been made in the UW System to continue their ideological campaign to force students to believe only one viewpoint is acceptable on campus,” Vos said

Under the agreement, Vos would have signed off on pay raises for more than 30,000 UW System employees, $32 million in funding for workforce development efforts, a myriad of building projects and changes to Wisconsin’s tuition reciprocity agreement with Minnesota. 

Regents sharply divided on proposed deal

Multiple Regents gave impassioned testimony pulling from their personal experiences with DEI and other aspects of the deal.

Regent Evan Brenkus, a junior from UW-Green Bay, said he would not vote yes on a compromise that is “selling our minorities out for millions of dollars.” 

“I believe the time has passed for minorities to be deprioritized,” Brenkus said at the meeting. “The universities have to stand to the highest value, the value of equity and any vote otherwise is to come into the racist agenda, unwillingly being thrust upon this governing body under the veil of compromise.” 

Brenkus, a Native American student in the UW System majoring in Indigenous studies, said he “will not compromise” and asked fellow Regents to “consider standing on the right side of this issue and the right side of history.”

Regent Héctor Colón said he voted in support of the resolution because the pay raises are “affecting the livelihoods of employees and their families, including those from underrepresented groups.”

“We need individuals from diverse backgrounds in health care, engineering and technology. The $32 million will help make this happen,” Colón said. 

Regent Jennifer Staton said she found a home at UW-Parkside after serving in the military and as a Hispanic student, DEI has helped her feel accepted and welcomed. 

“Parkside has been a home to me, [and] diversity, equity and inclusion is something that they not only speak about, but they live it,” Staton said. “I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable because it is my home, and I will fight for my home.” 

Regent Joan Prince, former vice chancellor of global inclusion and engagement at UW-Milwaukee, said that as someone who has four degrees from the UW System and has worked for the UW System for 24 years, she “cannot and will not vote to set the system back.” 

Political sphere, students react to Regents vote

If the resolution passed, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would have needed to approve the proposal. 

All nine of the Regents who voted to reject the resolution were Evers appointees, according to WisPolitics. The regents voting in favor of the measure included three members appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Rothman said Friday the UW System has been in contact with the governor’s office throughout the deal-making process.

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., a member of the Board of Regents from 2016 to 2018, denounced the board’s vote as a display of “wildly misplaced priorities” in a statement posted on Twitter. 

“This misguided decision is beyond insulting,” Steil said. “Gov. Evers-appointed board would rather hire more DEI employees than have a new engineering building and pay raises for its employees.”

Madison District 8 Ald. MGR Govindarajan said in a statement Saturday the “secretive” negotiations behind the deal — which he said “excluded students and people of color” — led to the resolution’s failure.

He said the UW System must commit to an “inclusive process” when it tries for a future deal and that the System cannot make sweeping decisions without hearing perspectives from “the people it’s meant to protect most.”

Emotions ran high for students watching the Regents vote in real-time. Karime Galaviz, university president of UW-Green Bay and a student of color, told The Daily Cardinal she started crying when she heard the resolution failed. 

“There's still hope. The Regents who voted against this were for the students and were for making sure that we kept these values that we preach all the time,” Galaviz said. 

 The Associated Students of Madison (ASM), UW-Madison’s student government body, said in a Saturday afternoon statement the Regents’ vote provided “a beacon of hope” for underrepresented students and said it would push to further student involvement in “all decision-making processes.”

Galaviz said she and other shared governance student leaders are determining next steps to advocate for students and emphasize “how important DEI is.”

This story was last updated at 12:59 p.m.

Liam Beran and Ava Menkes of The Daily Cardinal contributed to this report. 

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Anna Kleiber

Anna Kleiber is the state news editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.

Francesca Pica

Francesca Pica is the city news editor emeritus for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she served as a summer intern for The Capital Times and currently serves as a WisPolitics intern. 

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