The University of Wisconsin System has reached a deal with the Republican-controlled budget-writing committee to receive funding for building projects and blocked pay raises in exchange for a hiring freeze on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions and other concessions.
The UW-System will receive $800 million to provide pay raises for over 30,000 employees and build a new engineering hall for UW-Madison, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The deal also comes with changes to DEI programs opposed by Democrats and some student leaders.
“Today's agreement reflects what we believe to be in the best interest of the Universities of Wisconsin and all Wisconsinites to find a path forward on the issue the speaker has raised that enables all of our universities to better serve students and the public under the current circumstances,” UW System President Jay Rothman said in a press conference Friday.
Around a third of the UW System’s 130 DEI positions would be restructured to general student-success positions and would not be subject to layoff, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The total number of DEI positions and administrative positions would be frozen for the next three years. No new positions would be added, but existing vacancies could be filled if needed.
UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said the deal “isn't getting rid of DEI” but isn’t “business as usual.”
“We've agreed to partly reimagine our work to emphasize student success, which, already of course, is an incredibly important priority,” Mnookin said.
“Our core values around diversity and inclusion are not changed,” Rothman said.
Under the deal, UW-Madison would end its “Target of Opportunity” program at the end of the 2023-24 academic year. The program, which strives to diversify faculty ranks, would be replaced with a new hiring process for faculty who demonstrate their work with underrepresented students.
The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on the deal Saturday. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers must approve the deal as well.
Rothman told reporters the Regents vote would have the Legislature ensure pay raises are passed no later than Dec. 31. He said the UW System has been in contact with Evers’ office throughout negotiations and hopes Evers signs eventual legislation.
“This agreement can hopefully reset our relationship with the Legislature so that we can work together to focus on what is best for the state of Wisconsin,” Rothman said.
Regent Evan Brenkus, a junior at UW Green Bay, told The Daily Cardinal on Friday he was “still on the fence” about approving the agreement but that he saw pros and cons on either side.
“I’m not a big fan of how this is playing out, but what I can say is that we’ll figure it out,” Brenkus said. “No one likes this situation.”
In a joint statement with Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he is proud Wisconsin is the “first state with divided government” to make progress on reducing DEI programs.
“Our caucus objective has always been aimed at dismantling the bureaucracy and division related to DEI and reprioritizing our universities towards an emphasis on what matters – student success and achievement," Vos said.
DEI restructuring draws criticism
Wisconsin Assembly Democrats denounced any Republican efforts to “trade” pay raises or building projects in exchange for “cutting diversity, equity and inclusion and enshrining the far right’s agenda in our educational institutions” in a statement released Thursday.
Similarly, Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, told the Cardinal this agreement sends the message to students of color they are not welcome to campus.
“I am highly disappointed that this would be happening at a time when our enrollment is going down. We should be doing everything we can to recruit more people, not pushing more people away,” she said.
The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus said that they were “appalled” at the idea of exchanging DEI efforts for building projects in a statement Thursday.
“We are calling on every student, educator and Wisconsinite to reach out to our UW leadership to share their concerns,” the caucus said. “We deserve a state that funds our higher education systems and releases the pay raises for our staff that does not rest on the backs of students, faculty and staff of color.”
On Democratic criticism, Rothman said it was “a challenging negotiation” to reach an agreement with the GOP.
“I appreciate that there will be people who agree and disagree with all of this,” Rothman said. “Neither side at the end of the day has typically said this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s just reality.”
But Rothman said he finds the deal to be a point “in the best interest of our universities.”
UW-Green Bay professor and American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin Vice President of Higher Education Jon Shelton told the Cardinal on Friday that AFT needs to look further at the deal to “determine how badly it will harm our diverse student population.”
However, he said members are “deeply discouraged” at thoughts that campuses should “curtail [DEI] resources to get the Legislature to do its job” to release already-approved cost-of-living adjustments.
In response to the deal, Mnookin told the Journal Sentinel that “no one is going to look at this agreement and love every piece of it,” but the “approach to bridging a divide makes sense.”
“This compromise allows us to hold on to our core values and that includes our commitment to diversity, our commitment to belonging for all of our students, our commitment to inclusive excellence and our ability to move forward with all parts of our mission,” Mnookin said.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 11:47 a.m. and 12:13 p.m. to add statements from university leaders and lawmakers.
Anna Kleiber is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on state politics and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.
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 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 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.