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Robin Vos: $32M in UW funding won’t be released unless diversity programs end

UW System projects $47M structural deficit across campuses

Golden light shines on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Friday, April 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says Republicans will withhold $32 million in funding for the University of Wisconsin System unless it ends diversity, equity and inclusion programming. The statement comes one day after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers reinstated 188 DEI positions at state campuses with a budget veto.

During a call to conservative radio host Jay Weber Thursday, Vos lamented Evers’ veto blocking the GOP’s plan to eliminate 188 diversity, equity and inclusion positions at the state’s 13 universities.

“Now, good news for us is we defunded those positions,” Vos, R-Rochester, said.

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Vos is referring to around $32 million in supplemental funding for UW System workforce development initiatives currently held by the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee.

“And let me tell you, Jay, we are not giving the UW that money unless they work with us to eliminate all this racial preferences (sic) and all the things that are rampant on college campuses,” Vos said.

Vos didn’t elaborate during the call, but in recent weeks he’s claimed DEI staff are “burrowed in like a tick on ever single college campus” and that diversity, equity and inclusion “is the new religion for the left.”

The DEI debate has coincided with GOP anger over results from a 2022 free speech survey of UW System students. While most of the survey’s respondents felt instructors encourage them to explore a wide range of viewpoints in class, those who identified as conservatives reported self-censoring their views because of perceived pressure from classmates and instructors.

Before Republican lawmakers drafted their version of the state budget, UW System President Jay Rothman announced DEI statements, in which job applicants describe how they would help promote diversity on campus, would no longer be required at any state universities.

GOP lawmakers were unswayed.

While Vos railed against Evers’ budget vetoes, members of the UW System Board of Regents were discussing the current state of campus finances. UW System Vice Chancellor for Finance Sean Nelson told members the total estimated structural deficit for UW campuses is more than $47 million.

Deficits are not new for most campuses, Nelson said, and universities have been able to pull from reserves to balance their budgets over the past decade.

“But now you’re seeing a pretty gradual deceleration of our reserves over time here,” Nelson said. “We’re watching this very closely.”

He said he expects that by the end of 2024, reserves will fall to their lowest point since the universities were required to report their fund balances.

Since 2014, the UW System has been required to report annual fund balances to the Legislature. The requirement followed GOP outrage over fund balances, held by the system, that exceeded $1 billion. Around $414 million of that came from unspent tuition revenue after regents had approved consecutive tuition increases for Wisconsin residents.

In addition to the reporting requirements, Republican lawmakers cut $250 million from the UW System’s budget in 2015 and tuition rates for residents were frozen until this year.

During Thursday’s regent meeting, Rothman reiterated the system’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and criticized the decision to essentially cut the UW’s budget amid an estimated $7 billion surplus. He said even if the state kept the system’s budget flat rather than cut funding, it would “reduce our purchasing power by hundreds of millions of dollars” with inflation over 6 percent.

“Funding at this level threatens our mission of accessibility and affordability,” Rothman said. “In other words, it means that Wisconsin students lose. And that should be, in my view, unacceptable.”

Regent Bob Atwell, who was appointed by former Gov. Walker, referred to a “15-year standoff with the Legislature” and asked if the UW System has a “code red” list of campuses facing the greatest risk of insolvency.

“I feel like there’s information we’re afraid to look at in a public forum. And I’m not sure that’s an irrational fear,” Atwell said. “But if we have a fundamental problem and we’re to a point where we can’t fund the structural deficits from reserves at particular campuses much longer, people need to know that. Otherwise, we’re going to go back in to a Richland Center decision that plays out with the community not understanding the problem.”

Atwell is referring to the UW System ending classes this month at UW-Platteville’s campus in Richland Center. The system opted to shut down the campus after enrollment there fell to 60 students last fall.