Lawmakers on an Assembly committee heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would allocate $500,000 to free speech programming at the University of Wisconsin System.
The bill, introduced by seven Republicans, would bolster the newly formed Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue (WICCD). WICCD’s goals are to encourage viewpoint diversity, increase freedom of expression, protect academic freedom, and advance civic participation in universities and communities, according to Rep. Scott Johnson, R-Jefferson.
Legislators said they have a handshake agreement with UW System President Jay Rothman to match state funding, culminating in a $1 million annual budget.
Rothman created WICCD in late 2022 after a UW System freedom of speech survey found more than 64% of conservative students felt pressured to stifle their speech or conform to a professor’s desires compared to only 20% of liberal students.
The survey also resulted in free speech hearings around the state.
“The intent is developing into a national leadership role for UW,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities hearing. “UW can allow different discussions and viewpoints on their campuses and become the gold standard that other universities try to adopt in their own campus systems.”
WICCD would hire a full-time director, establish a board of advisors to appoint university liaisons and create a website for the institute. WICCD interim director Tim Shiell hopes to continue and increase programming like “It’s Just Coffee” and Deliberation Dinners, which were funded by an initial $250,000 budget.
“Amid the political polarization in our country and on our campuses, students of differing backgrounds [can] discuss difficult topics — politics, religion, economics — in a respectful and civil way if they have a non-threatening environment for doing so,” Rothman said when announcing WICCD.
Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, said she had concerns with the solidity of the handshake agreement, especially with it largely relying on Rothman.
Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, had more faith in the agreement.
“We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of money here,” Murphy said. “If the Universities of Wisconsin System wants to lose trust with the Legislature over failing to hold an agreement like this, we need to hire smarter people.”
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, questioned if the match money could come from philanthropic funds like the Menard Center rather than university revenue. She said university funds are currently in “high demand.”
With several UW campuses set to close, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, asked if money could be better spent working to keep those campuses open. Still, Johnson emphasized the importance of creating a “rich student experience, on all campuses.
Mary Bosch is the Photo Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a first year Journalism student. She has also written campus, state and city news. Follow her on twitter: @MaryBosch06