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Federal lawsuit filed claiming UW-Eau Claire employee was demoted from DEI position because she is white

Rochelle Hoffman alleges chancellor and UW Board of Regents subjected her to 'racially hostile and abusive work environment'

Van Hise Hall
A profile of Van Hise Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pictured against a backdrop of Lake Mendota on June 10, 2010. Jeff Miller/UW-Madison 

An employee of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has filed a federal lawsuit claiming she faced racial discrimination and was demoted from a diversity, equity and inclusion leadership position because she is white.

The suit follows earlier complaints the woman made with the university and the state alleging she was facing discrimination on the job.

Rochelle Hoffman, now UW-Eau Claire’s senior academic advising coordinator, alleges she faced intense opposition for months in 2022 after being named interim director of the campus’s Multicultural Student Services office.

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The Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt, and Assistant Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Teresa O’Halloran are named in the federal suit.

“Despite Hoffman’s exceptional qualifications, however, students, faculty and staff opposed her appointment to Interim Director of MSS solely because she was white,” the suit claims. “It was exclusively Hoffman’s identity as white that was the issue; criticism was about her race and color, not her qualifications.”

The lawsuit states that Hoffman worked for the campus’s Blugold Beginnings office for six years before the promotion. The office served students described as underrepresented, low-income and first-generation college students. After the promotion, the suit alleges the school’s former Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs Olga Diaz was told by students that they didn’t want a white woman overseeing spaces intended to serve students of color.

“The affinity model that had been in use at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was premised on the idea that for a student to be well served, they needed to be assigned a coordinator of the same ethnic background and that a white person could not adequately support a student of color,” the lawsuit claims.

Hoffman’s suit claims comments and concerns from some faculty about the “optics” of a white woman replacing former DEI leaders who were Asian and Black created a hostile work environment that led to Hoffman being told she had to move into her current role. It also alleges she was stripped from a teaching role and faced retaliation after filing a complaint with the university.

Hoffman referred a WPR request for comment to her attorneys with Fox and Fox S. C. in Monona. They were unavailable for comment Friday. A spokesperson for UW-Eau Claire told WPR Schmidt and O’Halloran were unavailable as well and said the university would not comment on pending litigation. A spokesperson for the Universities of Wisconsin administration office did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t Hoffman’s first complaint alleging racial discrimination at UW-Eau Claire. In November 2022, she filed a complaint with the State of Wisconsin Equal Rights Division within the Department of Workforce Development after third-party investigators with the UW System disagreed with her claims.

Investigators said Hoffman’s claim of being demoted from her interim position was unfounded. They said “Diaz never initiated nor requested” her title change to interim director of Multicultural Student Services through campus human resources, “which would have needed additional approvals beyond Diaz to take place.”

Investigators also claimed none of Hoffman’s examples of student and faculty opposition to her appointment “provide evidence of a pattern of discrimination.”

Hoffman also pleaded her case to State Senator Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, according to an email obtained through a WPR open records request regarding DEI funding and the state’s universities.

Hoffman told Testin she’s not happy the situation happened to her, but wrote, “I think it is important for good educators to bring light to some of the blatant actions of racial discrimination against white folks that are happening at UW Universities — and contributing to the current hostile environment around the UW System.”

“This experience dragged out over 10 months and irrevocably damaged my career,” Hoffman wrote. “On a regular basis there are great educators that are told they shouldn’t occupy multicultural space, to check their white privilege, passed over for jobs for an outside candidate of color, and reminded they are ‘inherently racist’ because they are white.”

She ended by telling the senator the “UW System is on a concerning trajectory that needs to be corrected.”

Hoffman’s correspondence was forwarded to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in May. The next month, Vos told attendees of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s state convention that DEI stands for “division, exclusion and indoctrination” and that it’s “the single most important issue that we are facing as a people, as a nation, and really, humanity.”

In September, Vos announced he would block pre-approved raises for around 34,000 UW employees until administrators eliminate DEI programs and staff. The speaker followed through on Oct. 17 when the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employee Relations, which Vos co-chairs, approved raises for some state employees but refused to take up those for UW workers.

Vos’ blockade of raises that were included in the state budget passed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in June ultimately led to the UW Board of Regents accepting an offer from the speaker to place new limits on DEI staff positions and programs in exchange for $800 million in state funds for UW raises and campus building projects.

Editor’s note: WPR staff are employees of UW-Madison.