Three UW regents flip their votes, allow GOP to attack diversity efforts in exchange for funding

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By Pat Kreitlow

December 14, 2023

Evers says Republicans are “abusing power.” Assembly Speaker Vos says it’s only a “first step” toward eliminating programs that help people get a college education.

Intimidation and threats by Republican legislators succeeded Wednesday in coercing three members of the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents to flip their votes from last Saturday and agree to diminish campus diversity programs so that GOP lawmakers would stop blocking funds for pay raises and building projects.

An agreement negotiated between Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and UW System President Jay Rothman was defeated over the weekend on a 9-8 vote. The resolution passed 11-6 in Wednesday’s meeting, after three of Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees switched their votes, despite criticizing the Republicans’ aims and tactics. Republican Chris Kapenga, president of the state Senate, had threatened not to confirm regents who voted against the deal.

“We simply can’t ignore the immense challenges facing our universities,” Regent Amy Bogost said. Reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted the other two regents to change their votes were Karen Walsh and UW-Parkside student Regent Jennifer Staton.

The agreement requires the UW to freeze hiring for diversity positions through 2026 and shift at least 43 current diversity positions to focus on “student success.” Campuses also will have to eliminate statements supporting diversity on student applications. UW-Madison will have to end an affirmative action faculty hiring program and create an undefined position focused on conservative thought. 

In return, Vos agreed to stop blocking $800 million in pay raises for approximately 30,000 UW workers. Vos has been using a legislative maneuver to hold up the raises, even though the Legislature has already approved them as part of the new state budget signed into law by Evers over the summer.

The deal also called for Vos and GOP lawmakers to reverse their initial rejection of $200 million to help fund a new engineering building on the flagship Madison campus.

“This vote today represents a vast overreach by a group of Republicans who’ve grown exceedingly comfortable overextending, manipulating, and abusing their power to control, subvert, and obstruct basic functions of government,” Evers said in a statement after the vote. “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.”

Rep. Dora Drake, chair of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, similarly blasted the outcome.

“This deal is part of a systematic racist deal and it is discriminatory,” Drake said. “It is discriminatory toward students, faculty and staff of color because their experiences should never have a price tag and should never be bought out.”

“Republicans know this is just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices on UW campuses,” Vos countered in a social media post. Vos later “liked” a post from an account that said, “Yes! We are going to end all diversity and equality on campus and finally set things right. Let’s do this!” 

Vos may not have realized the account is a parody with a name similar to that of a far-right Wisconsin news site.

Vos has been a vocal critic of campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs and positions. While DEI programs include efforts to assist minority students—in a state noted for a high degree of racial disparity in education—the programs also help improve campus diversity in other ways, such as helping veterans transition to university settings and improving access for women in fields such as science and engineering.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Author

  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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