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What to know about the UW System funding deal

Earlier this month, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and UW System President Jay Rothman reached a funding and pay raise agreement, sparking controversy and exclusion.

Republican lawmakers and UW System President Jay Rothman reached an agreement earlier this month to restructure diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions in exchange for pay raises and building projects.

Here’s what we know so far about the deal:

What’s in the deal?

Under the deal, the UW System will cap hiring for DEI positions for three years and restructure one-third of the system’s 130 DEI positions into general student success positions.

UW schools will also guarantee admission for high school students with high academic performance. Students ranked in the top 5% of their class are guaranteed admission to UW-Madison, while students in the top 10% are guaranteed admission to all other UW campuses. 

UW-Madison will also create an endowed chair position focusing on conservative political thought, classical economic theory or classical liberalism. 

In return, the UW System will receive $800 million for pay raises to over 35,000 employees and various systemwide building projects, including a new engineering building at UW-Madison, $78.5 for renovations to a UW-Whitewater education building and $79.2 million for residence hall renovations at Kronshage, Jorns and Humphrey. 

The money covers two more systemwide projects: $45.4 million to demolish unused or uninhabitable facilities on UW campuses and $149.3 million for systemwide utility projects.

The UW System will also get $32 million in funding for workforce development efforts and $16 million for the state’s tuition reciprocity agreement with Minnesota.

Details about which DEI positions face restructuring are unclear at this time, but Rothman called the deal a compromise and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, highlighted the Legislature is still working to eliminate DEI positions. 

Democrats, students and faculty were not included in negotiations

Much of the deal was negotiated behind closed doors between Rothman, Vos and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin. That meant most lawmakers, students and staff were surprised when leaders unveiled the deal with no opportunity for public input.

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The UW Board of Regents rejected the deal within 24 hours before reversing course and passing it five days later.

“The initial proposal seemed like it was part of a hostage negotiation,” Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, told The Daily Cardinal hours before the regents passed the proposal.

Like Larson, many Democrats feel Vos held the UW System hostage. 

Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, told the Cardinal in September DEI isn’t “something you’re going to throw away in the garbage because Robin Vos is holding you hostage,” and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, told the Cardinal on Dec. 12 she has been “very disappointed” Vos “has been holding the raises hostage.”

Many of them were disappointed Republicans attempted to negotiate for concessions already included in the state budget while they were left in the dark.

“The first I found out about it was Thursday,” Larson said. “One of [Rothman’s] staffers let me know, and I talked to him within an hour face-to-face about it. He was advocating for it to go through.”

Shankland said she faced similar frustration when the Democrats found out about the deal “around the same time that the public did” and did not have a seat at the table. She also voiced discomfort that faculty, staff and students were not present for negotiations. 

“I think most students would have said that they would certainly not want to see their identities and their belongings on campus being traded away for a building or for pay raises, and we heard the same from faculty and staff,” Shankland said.

The Associated Students of Madison (ASM), UW-Madison’s student government, released a statement on Dec. 12 saying the deal will impact the student experience across campuses and harm marginalized groups. 

“This deal tarnishes the student experience across Wisconsin campuses in its entirety, pushing important conversations out of our classrooms, residence halls, and student spaces,” ASM said.

Past emails indicate future DEI transformations 

While it’s still unclear which UW System positions will fall under the DEI adjustments, emails obtained by the Cardinal offer a glimpse into the process of creating DEI position adjustments. 

In May, Sen. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, sought specific information from Rothman about title descriptions, job location and total salary for any employee where the terms “diversity,” “equity” or “inclusion” is contained in the job title or within the employee’s assigned department. 

Rothan provided a list of UW System positions tied to DEI, including diversity officers, disability services advisors, associate professors, lecturers, Title IX coordinators, diversity and inclusion liaisons, human resources officers, veteran services coordinators and others. 

Rothman also said in a separate email to Regent Bob Atwell he would like the UW System to emphasize the “E” in “DEI” and said student opportunities must arrive on an “equitable basis.” 

“Equal opportunity does not, however, equate to equal success. Once given an equal opportunity to succeed, whether a student succeeds or not must be based on merit,” Rothman said in the email.

Pay raises approved, buildings and workforce development pending 

The Republican-led Joint Committee on Employment Relations approved a 6% pay raise to over 35,000 UW System employees in a 5-1 vote Tuesday as part of the deal. 

Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, who is a member of JCOER, told the Cardinal in an email she learned of the deal days before the first regents vote. Additionally, she felt the process was rushed and was unable to speak with students or regents before approving the pay raises. 

“Unfortunately, Republicans decided to use the long-overdue raises and needed building projects as a bargaining chip in their deeply misguided priorities and their culture war on diversity and inclusion initiatives,” Hesselbein said 

Evers, who sued legislative Republicans in October for withholding pay raises, said the committee’s vote would not affect his lawsuit against Republicans for “unconstitutionally obstructing basic functions of government.” 

The guaranteed admissions bill, the reciprocity agreement and part of the building investments will be voted on by the Legislature. The state budget-writing committee will vote on the $32 million in funding for workforce development programs.

Both components, along with UW-Madison’s engineering building and UW-Whitewater’s education building, must be approved before the end of the legislative session in 2024. 

Vos ‘first steps’ to eliminate DEI 

In a Twitter post after the regents approved the deal, Vos said he was glad they approved the compromise and got “real reforms enacted.”

“Republicans know this is just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices on UW campuses,” he said. A week later, Vos called for an audit of all DEI positions in state government by 2025. 

In an interview with reporters after the proposal's passage, Rothman was asked if this set a precedent for the Legislature to withhold funding in exchange for more significant DEI cuts.

"I think we face that issue when we come to it," Rothman said. "I'm not gonna speculate about what the next cycle may be."

Hesselbein expressed concern that continued attacks on DEI initiatives would have long-term impacts on Wisconsin. 

“From low-income students, student veterans, students with disabilities, students of color, students who are returning to college after the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child, first-generation college students, and so many others, the importance of DEI initiatives cannot be overstated,” she said. 

Shankland said she felt “disturbed” Vos said the approved deal would be the first bipartisan deal to cut DEI nationally.

“Their goal all along has been to eventually eliminate DEI programming on campus at a time when we are investing in DEI workplaces across Wisconsin and across the country,” she said.
“We shouldn't have to be negotiating away staff positions on campuses across Wisconsin to get those pay raises.”

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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.

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