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Saturday, June 15, 2024
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UW System leaders photographed at Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin's April April 14, 2023 investiture. First row, left to right: UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, Gov. Tony Evers, UW System President Jay Rothman, UW Board of Regents President Karen Walsh.

'Who was at the table?': UW leaders criticized for lacking transparency, inclusion as regents set to reconsider funding deal

Growing student, faculty criticism says the proposed deal exchanged diversity, equity and inclusion programming without foreknowledge from the students it would affect.

As the University of Wisconsin System formally unveiled a deal capping DEI positions in exchange for state funding less than 24 hours before it reached a final vote at the Board of Regents, students, faculty and politicians rushed to voice opposition.

Many said they felt the deal, largely negotiated behind closed doors with minimal public input, demonstrated a lack of transparency from university leaders at a time when inclusion initiatives are under attack. 

“Were there a diverse group of people at the table when this was going on?” asked Karime Galaviz, UW-Green Bay student president. 

After looking at the proposal, Galaviz didn’t believe there were. “What was going through their mind when they decided to do this?” she said.

For most students, staff and faculty, those final hours were the only chance they had to weigh in on a sweeping deal that would cap new DEI hires, freeze administrative position hiring and recategorize over 40 existing DEI positions as “student success positions.”

And now, following threats from top Republican lawmakers to end negotiations and fire regents who voted against the deal, the regents are coming back to the table in a last-minute reversal with apparent intent to greenlight the controversial agreement.

For Galaviz and others, it’s representative of a larger issue among UW System leaders making sweeping decisions without public input, particularly while universities other than UW-Madison already struggle to staff student services.

“If you're not at the table, you're on the menu,” Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, told the Cardinal. “It's easy for two older white men to trade away DEI in exchange for raises and buildings and other things.”

Some see lack of transparency, communication on DEI shifts 

Emerson’s critique comes alongside growing student criticism that the proposed deal exchanged DEI programming without foreknowledge from the students it would affect.

The road to UW’s controversial funding deal was long and tumultuous, with conflicting messages from UW leadership.

At UW-Madison, a university official told students in September they would not cut DEI positions. Later that month, Mnookin told the Cardinal the school may expand DEI programming, particularly for low-income and rural students. And throughout the past half-year, the UW System maintained a commitment to diversity and inclusion, calling it a core concept.

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The discrepancy between a public commitment to DEI and the eventual deal caught those who heard the news — particularly students — off guard.

“We were aware of him speaking with the Legislature,” Galaviz said, referring to shared governance meetings held with Rothman, who told attendees he was continually “trying to reason” with the Legislature. But Galaviz never thought a deal on DEI would come from those discussions.

“Rothman was talking about how he was gonna keep advocating for the students,” Galaviz said. “And our chancellor is all about inclusivity on our campus… we knew that something was going to happen. We just didn't know it was gonna be this.”

UW instructed chancellors to centralize communications about DEI

Part of the confusion may stem from a private instruction that chancellors send media requests about DEI to the UW System. 

In a May 3 email obtained by the Cardinal, Rothman told Mnookin to coordinate media requests on DEI with a UW System communications official for a “consistent message.” On that same day, Vos publicly suggested DEI programming would stall future public funding after meeting with Rothman and UW chancellors.

Mnookin Rothman communications email

In a September email to the UW System, UW-La Crosse communications official Kyle Farris said former UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow had been “continually instructed... to refer all DEI/budget inquiries to UComm and System” after Gow spoke to the Cardinal about DEI and the UW System budget.

“He doesn't always follow this guidance, unfortunately,” Farris added.

Gow Public Record email

Jablonski policy email

The communications policy, mentioned again in a Sept. 15 email from the UW System communications official to all chancellors, was met with surprise and suspicion by people the Cardinal interviewed.

“Heaven forbid, we should talk with more than one voice when it comes to diversity issues,” Emerson said. “The irony of that, it’s just beyond.”

Both Emerson and Galaviz emphasized any communications freeze on DEI would homogenize campus responses — even though campuses have different needs — and leave the UW System to dictate the narrative around DEI negotiations. 

Emerson questioned what’s wrong with “hearing different thoughts.”

“That's disappointing, if that's what System is saying,” she added.

UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch did not respond to a request for comment about the instruction.

It’s not the first time the UW System has faced criticism for not including campus voices in decision-making processes. In April 2022, former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Jim Henderson told the Wisconsin State Journal his resignation — during deliberations on a free speech survey — was due to a “lack of support from UW System leadership.”

“I thought chancellors had a role and a collaborative process in making decisions with the System, and I feel that was not honored,” Henderson told the State Journal. He said the survey rollout was primarily focused on “the political fallout of not doing the survey.”

Rothman’s own appointment process two years ago was criticized as non-transparent due to a lack of input from students and faculty, who were upset that finalists were not made available for public interview.

Perceived inequity in dealmaking process, UW System decisions 

Many interviewees the Cardinal spoke with emphasized the tough situation Mnookin and Rothman are in regarding the deal. They worried, however, that the private negotiation process created an environment without diverse voices.

Emerson said she believes Rothman ran into difficulties “trying to negotiate with someone like Vos,” but that Rothman’s “trying to do what’s best for the system.” 

But she said the way to do that is to bring more people into the discussion, not fewer. It’s easy for her as a white person, Emerson said, to feel the reclassification makes sense for roles still doing DEI work. 

“But it really matters to people of color,” Emerson added. “And if it doesn't matter what they're called, why is Vos so intent on taking away those titles, then?”

After the deal was announced, Emerson spent until well after midnight talking with affected faculty and students.

“There's a lot of them that just feel [they’re] not welcome here anymore,” Emerson said. “That breaks my heart.”

Emerson said shared governance policy would’ve brought further voices into deliberations and used perspectives from multiple campuses. Having private discussions, she said, allowed Vos to skirt public backlash toward restricting DEI issues.

UW-Madison student and City of Madison District 8 alder MGR Govindarajan also worried the process used to determine the deal violated shared governance regulations mandated by state law — that students subject to administrative control have “primary” responsibility for advising chancellors on the “formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services and interests.”

When the regents eventually voted down the deal, he was glad, but also surprised “in the worst way possible.” 

“I never expected them to stand up for DEI issues,” Govindarajan said.

System leadership in question

Rothman and Mnookin’s actions on DEI raised questions over how they made decisions while forming the private deal. At a Friday press conference, both Mnookin and Rothman maintained the UW System and UW-Madison’s “commitment” to diversity wouldn’t waver as a result.

At the press conference, Rothman said “diverse groups of people” were involved in input throughout the negotiation process but didn’t elaborate further.

Emerson said she believed Rothman and chancellors wanted to stay committed to DEI under the deal, pointing to conversations she had at a Dec. 7 Board meeting where chancellors privately told her business would be largely the same under the recategorization. Still, she felt that could change as new chancellors face further cuts.

“I think that he is getting an interesting entrance into the difference between the private sector and the political sector,” Emerson said of Rothman. 

Both Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, and Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, declined to comment specifically on UW leadership’s role in the deal. However, they emphasized Vos’ role in creating a deal that put diversity initiatives — something they said is common in the corporate sector — in exchange for already approved funding. 

The Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus drew more direct criticism, questioning who made negotiations “on behalf of our black and brown students on campus” in a Monday statement.

Roys felt Republicans saw an opportunity to “drive a wedge” on the DEI issue. 

“​​To hell with anybody that they hurt in the process,” Roys said. “[Public universities] shouldn't have to trade away the important missions that they serve just to be treated fairly under the state budget.”

Rothman floated resigning if the deal failed, student Regent Evan Brenkus told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Neither a UW System spokesperson nor Brenkus were available for response.

“With respect to resignation, it's Vos who should resign as a result of this,” Roys said.

The failed deal comes two weeks after a Cardinal report indicated Rothman suggested chancellors “consider shifting away” from liberal arts programs for campuses with many low-income students, among other takeaways.

Rothman later defended the liberal arts to other publications and said the suggestions were non-prescriptive and “food for thought.” He declined a follow-up interview with the Cardinal on the subject.

Galaviz said Rothman was upset about the article during a meeting with UW-Green Bay students. She said the report resonated with many students at her campus, which is considering cutting departments like theater and economics. 

Reading it was a blow for a student leader who “tries her best to advocate the best I could.”

Though Galaviz wasn’t sure of Rothman’s intent in the email, she said he continually “tiptoed” around student questions on the subject during the joint meeting, including from students concerned about economic accessibility to liberal arts educations. 

“It felt like he didn’t answer the question that we wanted,” Galaviz added.

Ava Menkes contributed to this report.

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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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