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Thursday, May 23, 2024
University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman, photographed during a February 8 Board of Regents meeting.

‘Ideological bias’ training mandate, other provisions were taken out of UW System deal

A Music Hall restoration, a mandate to have UW System employees complete a module to address “ideological bias” in unconscious bias training and more were taken out of the Dec. 13 deal.

Republican lawmakers and University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman reached an agreement in December to restructure diversity, equity and inclusion positions, but records show other systemwide plans were taken out at the last minute. 

A Music Hall restoration, a mandate to have UW System employees complete a module to address “ideological bias” and a four-year diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) cap were previously on the table but removed shortly before the deal’s passage.

In some cases, those removals came less than a week before the UW Board of Regents approved a controversial deal that exchanged building funds and employee pay raises for a cap on UW System DEI positions. UW leaders also agreed to restructure a third of those positions to focus on general student success.

UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin texted Rothman on Dec. 3 that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wanted a deal within the week. 

Word of the deal’s details reached media outlets by Dec. 7, and the first vote by the Board of Regents, which initially struck down the deal, came on Dec. 9. 

UW leaders outlined a list of prioritized state representatives and senators for chancellors to contact given “intel we get early in the week,” according to a Dec. 9 email from Jeff Buhrandt, UW System vice president for university relations. 

“At the end of this week we will re-evaluate and pull together a plan for next week,” Buhrandt said.

The Board of Regents later approved the deal on Dec. 13, though students and lawmakers criticized the closed-door process after details became public.

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Emails and texts show Mnookin and Rothman worked with Eric Petersen, an attorney and president of Wimmer and Company LLC, since at least Nov. 28 while negotiating with Vos. 

Those negotiations were often contentious, messages received and sent by Rothman and Mnookin show.

“I am deeply troubled by our employees being stuck in the middle of this dispute. This is not the Wisconsin that I know,” Rothman said in an email to UW System administrators and chancellors on Oct. 31. 

In another instance, Rothman and Mnookin told longtime UW-Madison philanthropists John and Tashia Morgridge in Dec. 11 emails they would commit to avoiding a “slippery slope” of legislative restrictions.

“I will do everything in my power to make sure this is not the start of a slippery slope toward something we would all find unacceptable,” Rothman said.

Unconscious bias training pulled unexpectedly 

Rothman emailed Vos a draft of the deal on Nov. 24, which included a requirement for employees to complete a professional development module addressing “ideological bias.”

“The System will require all employees to complete a professional development module that addresses ideological bias within unconscious bias training,” Rothman said. 

The proposal came two months after Monica Smith, UW System associate vice president for equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging, told Rothman in a Sept. 5 email “there are many narratives addressing whether unconscious bias training ‘works.’”

“Setting the stage for these kinds of professional development opportunities is essential,” Smith said at the time. Rothman forwarded the email to Mnookin with the text “per our earlier discussion.”

But in a Dec. 6 text message, Mnookin said Petersen told her “RV” —  short for Robin Vos, based on context — didn’t want the ideological bias training anymore. 

Some Republican lawmakers and companies have characterized such trainings as divisive and inequitable. Legislatures in some other states like Florida and Tennessee have banned similar trainings.

The proposal to include unconscious bias training would have extended previous restrictions placed on DEI measures within the employment process. This comes after Rothman eliminated diversity statements from UW System employment in May after Vos threatened budget cuts. 

Music Hall funding withdrawn, was a bargaining piece for guaranteed admissions

One point of contention in the deal was the restoration of UW-Madison’s Music Hall, one of the school’s top capital budget requests. In a Dec. 5 email to Petersen, Rothman said deleting the 135-year-old Music Hall’s restoration — which didn’t make it into the approved deal — wasn't acceptable.

Without funding for the building, Rothman said, the UW System would have to “revisit” its position on guaranteed admissions. When news first broke of the deal on Dec. 7, sources indicated to the Cardinal that Music Hall funding was one of the UW System’s top priorities.

The trade-off, if approved, would have funded one of UW-Madison’s current top budget priorities, which the school requested $347.3 million for in February. 

“I really don't have any idea why it did or didn't get in,” Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, told the Cardinal when asked why the Music Hall funding was pulled. “I don't know if the Republicans hate the arts. It really does feel like we've got an awful lot of catch-up to do when it comes to the capital budget for a university.”

Guaranteed UW System admission, which a UW-Madison spokesperson said in October was less pertinent at the flagship school due to healthy enrollment, was more narrow in a Nov. 24 draft of the deal, in which homeschooled or digitally schooled students wouldn’t have been eligible for guaranteed admissions. 

Employment negotiations changed 

The Nov. 24 version of the deal would have capped UW System hiring for any position which spends less than 50% of its time working directly with students. Rothman said the provision was a “deal breaker” because some faculty at UW-Madison and other campuses spend more time doing research than facing students. 

Mnookin and Rothman also negotiated an exemption for athletics-related positions, which they said should have been explicitly excluded.

At first, an exception wasn’t planned for UW-Extension, the UW-Madison outreach branch that provides continuing education to counties and communities throughout Wisconsin. The current exemption applies if the Extension position receives 75% or more of its funding from gifts, grants or intergovernmental contracts.

“We are trying to understand why that exception is an issue, particularly since many of the Extension positions are funded jointly with the counties in which the employees reside,” Rothman said in his Nov. 28 email to Petersen. 

He added his and Mnookin’s assumption was that the counties “would not favor such a change.”

Additionally, Rothman and Mnookin received a draft version of the deal which called for a four-year cap on DEI positions in the UW System, not the three-year cap that was eventually passed. They objected to the provision, saying they believed the dates were already “agreed to.”

Reactions to deal varied

Some parties involved in the deal, like Regents Ed Manydeeds III and Cris Petersen, sent messages of support to Rothman during and after the deal’s passage. 

“I can’t thank you enough for your leadership, perseverance and grace. This has been more of a shit show than a dairy farm ever has,” Petersen said in a Dec. 12 text. “Blue skies ahead!”

Still, some students and Democratic lawmakers said they worry the decision ignored shared governance rights and sold out resources for underrepresented students for funds. 

Though he had qualms with some of the provisions, including the cut ideological bias training, UW-Madison student government Associated Students of Madison (ASM) Shared Governance Chair AJ Butler told the Cardinal his bigger concern is that students weren’t at the table.

“If you're someone who's working in DEI in these universities or you’re a student who uses DEI services, your life is going to be way more impacted by this decision than any of the members of the Board of Regents,” Butler said. 

Months after the deal, UW-Madison has moved to defend itself against future anti-DEI legislation and also planned a marketing campaign to fight a “leftist” reputation, according to the Cap Times.

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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.

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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