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UW System considering deal to freeze DEI positions in exchange for buildings, pay raise approval, sources say

Wisconsin Assembly Democrats released statements Thursday denouncing Republican efforts to “trade” freezing diversity, equity and inclusion positions for pay raises and building project approvals across the UW System.

Wisconsin Assembly Democrats released statements Thursday opposing any Republican efforts to “trade” diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions for pay raises and building project approvals in response to reports top Republicans are nearing a deal with the UW System.

Democrats’ statement comes as sources familiar with the deal told The Daily Cardinal changes to DEI programming were floated as part of a potential agreement to free up UW System pay raises. Potential changes include a three-year systemwide hiring freeze for DEI positions and realigning some existing positions toward student success.

Also on the table, sources said, is $32 million in state funding for workforce development programs and $740 million for systemwide building projects, including a long-awaited replacement for UW-Madison’s engineering hall.

Other building projects under consideration were an addition to UW-Madison’s Music Hall, renovations to three UW-Madison dorms and a systemwide utility project.

“We ask university leaders and our GOP colleagues in the Capitol to join us in opposing Speaker Vos’ blatant attack on our universities and our students, especially students of color and LGBTQ+ students,” the statement, signed by 35 Assembly Democrats, read. 

In a separate statement, Rep. Sheila Stubbs, D-Madison, said she was “disgusted” to learn Republicans and UW System officials have had “closed-door negotiations to trade away DEI programming in order to negotiate employee pay raises and building funding.”

Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, separately confirmed the deal includes $740 million for systemwide building projects, including a long-awaited replacement for UW-Madison’s engineering hall.

“Based on conversations that I’ve had with staff and faculty across different universities, many of them are united in knowing that they are not going to negotiate cutting programs that would uplift diversity, equity and inclusion in exchange for their pay raises,” Hong told the Cardinal.  

An agreement on tuition reciprocity for Minnesota residents attending Wisconsin schools is also under consideration, according to sources familiar with the deal. The proposal would bring more funding to UW campuses with high amounts of Minnesota resident students like UW-River Falls and UW-Eau Claire.

Additional provisions include a new "chair of political conservative thought" position at UW-Madison and guaranteed admissions for high-performing high school students, sources said.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and UW System President Jay Rothman were “really close” to a deal after months of discussion.

However, UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch told the AP Wednesday no deal is imminent and said there were “broader considerations” at play. 

Pitsch, Vos and LeMahieu did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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Reports of a deal come after months of stalemate

Reports of a potential deal come after months of stalemate between the UW System and Republican leaders, namely Vos, over UW employee pay raises and other university funding initiatives.

Vos initially said Republicans would withhold $32 million from the UW System until it eliminates its DEI programs, which he said have turned the system “from an institute of higher education to an institute of indoctrination.” 

UW leaders have so far resisted DEI cuts. In response, Vos coordinated an effort to block pay raises for more than 30,000 UW System employees in October. That same month, Vos added legislative oversight of UW System positions to his list of demands.

Republicans earlier this year blocked $197 million in state funding for a new UW-Madison engineering building, the UW System’s top state budget priority. 

Vos told reporters in November he would like to find a way to fund the building but wants an agreement on DEI programs and greater authority over UW System positions. 

However, LeMahieu said Wednesday during an interview with WisconsinEye he opposes using UW System pay raises as bargaining pieces. 

“I totally understand where Speaker Vos is coming from, but a lot of employees who work at the UW system have no control over the DEI protocol and all that stuff,” LeMahieu said in an interview with WisconsinEye.

Democrats in their joint statement Thursday called Vos’ move an attempt to use “our students and university system as political pawns.”

Union leaders, local lawmakers worry DEI is on the negotiating table

Jon Shelton, a UW-Green Bay professor and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin Higher Education Council (AFT), told the Cardinal he worried the deal would limit DEI services systemwide in exchange for legislative approval of pay raises and longstanding capital projects, including a new engineering hall for UW-Madison.

“The members of AFT-Wisconsin locals share the concerns of Assembly Democrats: we strongly oppose any deal that would curtail deeply necessary DEI resources for our students,” Shelton said.

“Real leadership is standing up for our values and not allowing legislators with an ideological agenda to dictate the services that are available to our community,” Shelton added. 

Madison District 8 Ald. MGR Govindarajan, who represents much of the UW-Madison campus on the city’s Common Council, told the Cardinal he is disappointed students of color and faculty are on the “negotiation table.”

"I'm worried that a lot of the negotiation is going to take place while students are doing their finals and are on winter break,” Govindarjan said.  “If there is a bad deal made, I think it would be very difficult for students to mobilize against it, which worries me a lot."

In November, Gov. Tony Evers sued legislative Republicans for blocking raises for UW System employees. The lawsuit was filed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which now has a liberal majority. 

Vos told reporters he could not see why the Supreme Court would change the process of the Legislature. 

This article was updated at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.

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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. 

Ava Menkes

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

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.

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