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Vos says UW deal ‘first step’ toward eliminating ‘cancerous’ DEI practices

Committee hearing scheduled to release pay raises for UW workers blocked since July

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has been mum on the Republican majority’s plans for legislation if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to an abortion. He is seen at the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2020 in Madison, Wis. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Shortly after the Universities of Wisconsin accepted a GOP offer to approve UW raises and building projects in exchange for new limits on campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had a message. The move, he said, was just a first step in the GOP’s efforts to eliminate DEI.

In a social media post, Vos, R-Rochester, said he was glad the board approved the agreement despite efforts by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to “scuttle the deal.” Vos also said there’s more work ahead for the GOP.

“We finally have turned the corner and gotten real reforms enacted,” Vos said. “Republicans know this is just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices on UW campuses.”

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Precisely what that means, and how the Vos-UW saga unfolds from here, could depend on a variety of factors.

Lawmakers are scheduled to give final approval to the raises

On Thursday, Vos made good on one of the GOP promises in the agreement. The Joint Committee on Employment Relations, which he co-chairs, scheduled a vote to release pay raises for around 34,000 UW employees.

The raises were approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in late June and were scheduled to go into effect July 1. In October, JCOER approved raises for some state employees but did not take up the UW’s share.

In addition, Republicans have agreed to authorize funding for UW building projects including a new UW-Madison engineering building and renovations on Vos’ alma mater, UW-Whitewater, by the end of the legislative session in February.

In exchange, the number of DEI staff and other UW administrative positions will be frozen through 2026 and the university system will support a GOP proposal requiring UW-Madison to automatically admit the top 5 percent of academic performers graduating from Wisconsin high schools. All other campuses will be required to admit the top 10 percent of state high school grads.

UW-Madison will also end its Target of Opportunity Program, which aims to recruit diverse faculty with another “regardless of their identity or ethnic/racial background” per the agreement.

The state’s flagship university will also eliminate diversity statements for incoming students and fundraise for a new campus leadership position focused on things like “conservative political thought, classical economic theory or classical liberalism.”

Gov. Tony Evers stands in front of the assembly and gives a speech.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the biennial budget message Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A lawsuit by the governor against the Legislature is still pending

Days after the committee chaired by Vos declined to take up the UW pay raises in October, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit on behalf of the governor, claiming the speaker and other GOP lawmakers were “unconstitutionally and unlawfully obstructing basic government functions” by blocking the pre-approved cost-of-living raises.

That suit is still pending before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and its new liberal majority. An email from Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesperson Gillian Drummond told WPR the litigation will continue despite the regents’ acceptance of the GOP deal.

“Even if the pay raises are approved by JCOER, future pay raises would be subject to the same potential veto by that committee,” Drummond said. “None of the underlying legal claims is impacted by the recent developments.”

Conservatives say more DEI projects will be ‘under the microscope’

Conservatives celebrated the agreement, which was initially rejected by regents on Saturday. Three members flipped their votes during a meeting Wednesday afternoon, stating the funding is needed and will help students from all backgrounds succeed in their collegiate careers.

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty Deputy Counsel Dan Lennington told WPR the agreement between Vos and the UW is “an incremental victory for equality” but there are more campus DEI programs “that will be under the microscope.”

“Just because someone has a certain racial background does not mean that they are marginalized,” Lennington said. “Just because someone has parents who come from a certain country doesn’t mean that they are disadvantaged. Just because some student has a certain color of skin doesn’t mean that they are entitled to certain specific presumptions that they’re going to fail, or they can’t succeed unless the government treats them as a member of a certain racial group. That’s the racialization of our educational system. That’s illegal.”

Lennington said WILL has pending litigation aiming to eliminate a race-based scholarship at UW-Madison. On Thursday, the conservative group announced it’s preparing a legal challenge against UW-La Crosse for denying the conservative group Young America’s Foundation from being recognized as a student organization until it signs a DEI inclusivity statement.

Democratic state lawmakers, including members of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, called the agreement between regents and Vos a “back door deal” that would “create a hostile environment for non-white students and faculty on campuses.”

After the board acquiesced to Vos’ demands, Evers released a statement saying he disagrees with the decision of regents, most of whom he appointed to the board.

“This exercise has been about one thing—the relentless political tantrums, ultimatums, and threats of retribution by legislative Republicans, most especially Speaker Robin Vos, his negotiation-by-bullying tactics, and general disdain for public education at every level,” Evers said.

A Thursday statement from the UW-Madison faculty advocacy group PROFS said that while it’s eager to see the approval of the UW’s pay plan, members are “deeply dismayed” that Vos forced the university to negotiate over core DEI initiatives aimed at helping all students.

“PROFS is concerned that the agreement represents the kind of brinksmanship that the Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate will continue to engage in, particularly now that they see that it has had its intended effect — forcing the UW to the bargaining table over already-agreed upon budget measures,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for Vos did not respond to an email Thursday asking for more details about the speaker’s next steps as it relates to DEI.

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