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UW, Vos reach compromise on DEI to release pay raises for university employees

The plan will enact raises that had been delayed for about 34K workers

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

The Universities of Wisconsin and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have reached a deal in the months-long blockade of pay raises for around 34,000 employees aimed at cutting campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Under the terms of the deal, GOP lawmakers are agreeing to release about $800 million for employee cost-of-living raises and approve building projects, including a UW-Madison engineering building that was rejected by Republicans earlier this year.

The agreement would also require the UW to freeze the number of DEI positions through 2026 and realign some jobs currently focused on diversity. All told, that would mean 43 fewer people working on DEI compared to today.

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UW-Madison will end its Target of Opportunity Program, which is aimed at hiring more diverse faculty and staff on campus. The agreement specifies the campus will replace the TOP program with “an alternative program” focused on recruiting faculty regardless of their racial and ethnic backgrounds and gender identity.

In addition, the UW will support a Republican proposal requiring campuses to automatically admit the top academic performers from high schools around the state. For UW-Madison, that means admitting the top 5 percent of high school students. All other campuses will be required to admit the top 10 percent of students.

UW-Madison will also seek private funding to create an administrative chair position to focus on “conservative political thought, classical economic theory, or classical liberalism” depending on the interests of the prospective donor.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos stands on red carpet as he speaks at the front of the chamber.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks at the front of the chamber Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

GOP lawmakers, UW leaders content with compromise

In a joint statement, Vos, R-Rochester, and Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said they’re pleased with the agreement and claimed there’s been a “growing emphasis on concepts that amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination on our campuses.”

“Our caucus objective has always been aimed at dismantling the bureaucracy and division related to DEI and reprioritizing our universities towards an emphasis on what matters — student success and achievement,” Vos said. “I’m proud that Wisconsin is the first state with divided government to make real progress on reducing these negative influences across our public higher education institutions.”

During a press conference with reporters Friday, Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin also praised the compromise as a way to “reimagine” DEI initiatives.

Mnookin told reporters that the blockage of campus employee pay raises and UW-Madison’s has been a difficult process, saying she recognized the stress and strain it’s caused.

“We talk a lot about bridging divides and the importance of doing that,” Mnookin said. “This is a compromise that I think does exactly that. And I want to be clear that it’s also a compromise that allows us to hold on to our core values, which include a commitment to diversity, inclusivity, belonging and excellence.”

Rothman described the agreement as a consensus between Vos and the Universities of Wisconsin. He said he expected the Board of Regents to formally approve the deal Saturday.

Since taking the helm of the state’s universities last year, Rothman has advocated for more state investments in public higher education. On Friday, he reiterated that Wisconsin ranks 42nd out of 50 states in terms of public funding for universities.

“This agreement can hopefully reset our relationship with the Legislature so that we can work together to focus on what is best for the state of Wisconsin,” Rothman said.

For Vos, ‘hold our ground’ strategy yielded concessions from UW system

The state budget passed and signed by Gov. Tony Evers in late June included 6 percent raises spread over two years for state workers and UW employees. But in September, Vos announced he would block the UW raises in an attempt to pressure administrators to eliminate DEI programs and staff. The speaker followed through on Oct. 17, when the Joint Committee on Employee Relations, which Vos co-chairs, approved the wage increases for some state employees, but did not take up the UW raises.

In response, Gov. Evers filed a lawsuit asking the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to declare Vos and other GOP lawmakers were “unconstitutionally and unlawfully obstructing basic government functions” by blocking the pay raises that had already been approved by Republicans and Democrats. The court hasn’t yet decided whether to take up the lawsuit, and it’s unclear whether the compromise between Vos and the UW will affect it.

READ MORE: Campus diversity programs targeted as legal and political battles escalate

Students listening to a lecture
Students listen to Math 221 instructor Soledad Benguria Depassier in Sterling Hall during the first day of fall semester classes at UW-Madison on Sept. 6, 2023. Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison

Vos has been sharply critical of campus DEI staff and initiatives. In June, he told attendees at the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s state convention that DEI programming represents “overt racism.”

“If we hold our ground, and we stand strong enough, we’re going to be the pebble in the pond that ripples all across the country and hopefully begins to turn this crap around,” Vos told the crowd. “So, we can’t give in. This is probably, to me, the single most important issue that we are facing as a people, as a nation, and as really humanity.”

While Vos never wavered on his strategy for getting DEI concessions from state universities, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told Wisconsin Eye this week that he didn’t support the pay raise blockade. He said he understood what Vos was trying to accomplish but noted most UW employees don’t have control over DEI policies. LeMahieu later told reporters that a compromise between the speaker and the UW was near.

Other say deal is ‘a cynical political move’

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus released a joint statement saying the members are “appalled and ashamed” to see the state removing DEI from educational institutions.

“We ask the question, who was at the table making negotiations on behalf of our black and brown students on campus?” the statement said. “Who decided to undervalue our students and staff of color by setting a price tag on their inclusion on our campuses? Were our students and students’ interests even considered?”

The group said it’s “true irony” the deal includes the creation of a position at UW-Madison dedicated to conservative thought funded by donors.

“This is a text-book example of how political agendas are pushed in our higher education system to silence others,” the statement said. “The result of these provisions would create a hostile environment for non-White students and faculty on our campuses.”

Assembly Democrats also released a joint statement Thursday that called the GOP’s attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion on campuses “attempts to divide us and foment culture wars at the expense of the wellbeing of all of our students.”

“We ask university leaders and our GOP colleagues in the Capitol to join us in opposing Speaker Vos’ blatant attack on our universities and our students, especially students of color and LGBTQ+ students,” the statement said. “Rather than using our students and university system as political pawns, we must work to build a Wisconsin where everyone has the opportunity to thrive — that is our job.”

A statement from teachers union AFT-Wisconsin sent the same day called the potential deal “a cynical political move all the way around.”

“Real leadership means standing up for our values and fighting for the resources our public university system needs,” said Kim Kohlhaas, elected President of AFT-Wisconsin. “If the UW system’s administrative leaders won’t lead that fight, the members of our higher education locals across the state will because our students, and the Wisconsin Idea, are too important not to.”

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