, ,

Republican proposal would use state cash to fund UW free speech office

GOP bill focuses on office that surveyed students on political views and speech in the UW system

Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall towers above the rest of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as the winter sun begins to set on Feb. 11, 2014. The UW-System is housed within Van Hise. Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

A pair of Wisconsin Republicans want to give the Universities of Wisconsin $500,000 a year to ensure conservative voices on public campuses are heard. 

Rep. Scott Johnson, R-Jefferson, and Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, are proposing a bill that would fund the university system’s free speech office, the Wisconsin Institute of Citizenship and Civil Dialogue.

The bill proposal says the Wisconsin Institute of Citizenship and Civil Dialogue was not adequately funded when it was created.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue was created in November 2022 by UW System President Jay Rothman in conjunction with a student free speech survey. The UW system spent $250,000 on the center in its first year, according to a university spokesperson. 

At the time, Rothman said it was an extension of UW-Madison’s “It’s Just Coffee” program that brought students from different backgrounds together to discuss politics, religion and economics in a non-threatening environment. 

The survey of more than 10,000 Universities of Wisconsin undergraduate students found stark differences in opinion on free speech when broken down by political affiliation, gender and race.

It showed about 64 percent of “very conservative” students reported feeling pressured to agree with a specific political or ideological viewpoint in class, compared to about 15 percent of “very liberal” students. 

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

“Currently, the UW-System does not even provide WICCD with enough money to hire a full time director,” Rep. Johnson wrote in a bill memo. “(The institute’s) core functions are to help coordinate the UW-System’s numerous academic centers that focus on the Constitution and public affairs to elevate, enhance, and promote existing programming on research and knowledge dissemination focusing on the First Amendment, free expression, and viewpoint diversity.”

Until a deal was struck in December between the UW system and Republicans to cut campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, vowed no money would be spent on the university. 

Johnson and Cabral-Guevara could not immediately be reached for additional comment. 

During an event with the Milwaukee Press Club on Tuesday, Rothman was asked about some Republicans believing that universities are “hotspots for liberal indoctrination.” 

Rothman said he wants the campuses to be a marketplace for ideas, where students have access to knowledge and can be challenged. 

“And whatever perspective they have — to make sure that perspective gets challenged, because that’s how you learn,” Rothman said. “We are not there to indoctrinate students. We are there to share information with them. We’re there to develop their critical thought process. We’re there to help them write and speak in a more articulate fashion. We’re there to help them problem solve and analyze.”

Editor’s note: this story was updated to reflect that the Universities of Wisconsin spent $250,000 on the center in its first year.