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Friday, February 23, 2024
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A mural for "Bridging the Divide" is displayed in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office in Bascom Hall Jan. 29, 2024.

After a controversial deal, growing legal threats target UW System DEI programming

An overview of diversity, equity and inclusion related disputes after the UW System’s approval of a controversial deal which capped DEI positions for pay raises and building funds.

University of Wisconsin System diversity programs remain a hotbed of legal dispute after UW leaders approved a controversial deal in December to restructure diversity positions in exchange for pay raises and building projects.  

In the weeks following its approval, several UW schools have received complaints and lawsuits from employees and conservative organizations alleging discrimination based on race and freedom of speech violations. 

The lawsuits reflect the ongoing embattled state of DEI in higher education and the lingering ramifications of a June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down race-conscious admissions programs. 

According to a March 2023 Chronicle of Higher Education analysis, state lawmakers in 13 states introduced at least 21 bills between then and December 2022 aimed at restricting colleges’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Nearly 60 more bills were introduced since 2023.

Here’s an overview that details the most recent litigation in Wisconsin’s DEI space. 

UW-Eau Claire employee files lawsuit over demotion from DEI position

On Dec. 14, UW-Eau Claire Senior Academic Advising Coordinator Rochelle Hoffman filed a lawsuit against the institution, alleging she was forced to resign from her previous position as the assistant director of the university’s Office of Multicultural Student Services (MSS) because she was white. 

Hoffman alleged she had no interest in moving to another department, but after eight months of “intense hostility” and questioning of her legitimacy in the department, “she felt she had no choice but to resign as Assistant Director of MSS.” 

“It was exclusively Hoffman’s identity as white that was the issue; criticism was about her race and color, not her qualifications,” the lawsuit said. 

A UWEC spokesperson told The Daily Cardinal via email the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation and ‘‘does not discriminate based on race in any employment decisions.” 

State Bar sued over Diversity Clerkship Program

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a Milwaukee-based nonprofit conservative law firm, filed a lawsuit against the State Bar of Wisconsin in December over its diversity clerkship program for law students.

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The suit argued program requirements as well as selection and matching processes “discriminate between students based on various protected traits, particularly race.”

According to the lawsuit, the State Bar program exclusively offers legal internship opportunities to a select group of minority law students.

The program provides a paid summer internship opportunity for post-first-year law school students “with backgrounds that have been historically excluded from the legal field,” per the State Bar’s description

“The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Diversity Clerkship Program is designed to assist first-year law students who attend the University of Wisconsin or Marquette University law schools by creating opportunities for introductions to private law firms, corporate legal departments, and governmental agencies that participate in the program,” State Bar of Wisconsin Executive Director Larry J. Martin said in a Dec. 20 statement

In its legal action, WILL asserted that the State Bar of Wisconsin's mandate for attorneys to finance DEI initiatives is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. This argument draws parallels with a June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed a similar requirement unconstitutional in the context of prohibiting affirmative action in college admissions at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.

“The State Bar will vigorously defend the Diversity Clerkship Program as the organization has long considered the program an important tool to support Wisconsin law school students,” Martin said. 

Conservative group challenges UW-La Crosse DEI policy for student groups 

Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth group, threatened legal action against UW-La Crosse for a policy mandating student groups include a DEI inclusivity statement in their organizational bylaws to be fully recognized.

The university backed down on Dec. 15 after YAF partners WILL and Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) threatened legal action. 

In March 2021, the UW-La Crosse student government enacted a resolution requiring all student groups to include a DEI statement holding organizations “accountable” for creating an inclusive environment.

According to WILL, the school originally denied YAF’s designation because the student organization refused to sign onto the DEI inclusivity statement. YAF cited its opposition to organizational values and violation of its First Amendment right in its refusal. 

“The University of Wisconsin may not compel student groups to express these ideological beliefs — regardless of their underlying merit — because the Constitution forbids it,” WILL and MSLF wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to the university.  

The Equal Protection Project files complaint against UW Madison BIPOC fellowship program

On January 22, the Equal Protection Project (EPP), an anti-affirmative action litigation group under the Legal Insurrection Foundation, filed a civil rights complaint against the University of Wisconsin-Madison over a fellowship program the group alleges is discriminatory.

The fellowship program, run by the Morgridge Center for Public Service, provides a $500 scholarship paired with mentorship and experience in community engagement to a “member of a historically underrepresented racial or ethnic group or community.” 

“The BIPOC Fellows program at UW-Madison makes clear that students who do not meet the prerequisite racial categories — for example, students who identify as white — are automatically ineligible,” the complaint read. 

In an email to Madison365, EPP founder William A. Jacobson said UW-Madison should come up with a remedial program to compensate students shut out of the BIPOC Fellows program based on race and ethnicity. 

UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas told Madison 365 on Jan. 22 that the university hadn’t been notified of any official complaint. 

“As an institution of higher education, UW-Madison is committed to attracting and serving students from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, and being responsive to groups that have been traditionally underserved by higher education,” Lucas said. 

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