GOP lawmakers and UW reach deal to release pay raises, restructure diversity positions

NOW: GOP lawmakers and UW reach deal to release pay raises, restructure diversity positions

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A deal has been reached to release pay raises to thousands of Universities of Wisconsin employees after a months-long feud over diversity initiatives on campuses.

Under the terms of a proposed deal announced Friday, GOP lawmakers are agreeing to release about $800 million for already approved UW pay raises and building projects, including a new engineering building on Madison's campus.

In return, the UW System will reduce the number of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) positions through Dec. 31, 2026. To do so, the universities will restructure 43 DEI positions across the system's 13 campuses to support "the success of all students."

The universities will also place a cap on any non-faculty hiring through the end of 2026 with an exception for positions that interact with students at least 75% of the time.

Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman said a key reason for accepting the deal was no one would lose their job in the restructuring process. He said the agreement was a compromise to "reimagine" DEI initiatives, though it wasn't exactly clear what would change in those jobs aside from their title. 

"It was an arduous process and difficult process, but with all compromises concessions needed to be made," Rothman said. "I believe we will have positioned ourselves with the investments freed up to work with these positions and continue to live our core values."

Under the proposed agreement, the UW will also pledge to follow a U.S. Supreme Court decision barring the use of race in admissions and support a proposed bill that would guarantee admissions to Wisconsin students who finished in the top 10% of their high school class. The benchmark for UW-Madison campus would be the top 5%.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who led the Republican push to hold out for DEI cuts, praised the deal.

“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.”

Legislative Democrats, and specifically, the Black Legislative Caucus, accused the UW System of selling out students and staff in minority groups, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. 

State Rep. Dora Drake (D-Madison) stood by a statement the caucus issued, which called the agreement "appalling" and questioned whether people of color had a seat at the negotiations.

"I think what's appalling is we've set a price tag now for former students that would benefit from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion members, as well as faculty and staff," Drake said Friday. 

Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said during a press call the universities were not abandoning diversity efforts. They framed the changes as being dedicated to help all students. 

"This isn't getting rid of DEI nor is it completely business as usual," Mnookin said. "We've agreed to partly reimagine how we go about our work to emphasize student success."

Some of the concessions aimed at satisfying Vos were a pledge to seek private donations to fund a new endowed chair position. That position would focus on "conservative political thought" or "classical economic theory." Drake said it was hypocritical for Republicans to accuse the system of favoring certain groups while demanding a chair position dedicated to their political ideology.

The agreement also includes funding to repair the education and psychology building on the UW-Whitewater campus, which Rothman said came at the insistence of Vos. 

Democrats on Friday were pushing to collect public signatures stating opposition to the deal, but it's unlikely to make a different as the UW Board of Regents is set to vote on the agreement Saturday morning. Some parts of the package, like the admissions trigger, will come as separate bills. Gov. Tony Evers' office did not respond to questions Friday asking whether he'd sign those bills.

In addition to releasing pay bumps to 35,000 employees, the UW System will also reclaim $32 million from the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee. That funding was cut from the UW budget earlier this year after Vos demanded it be used to address the state's workforce needs, not DEI efforts.

Last month, Rothman unveiled his plan that seeks to bolster programs in engineering, nursing, health care, business, and computer and data science.

In October, Evers administration sued legislative Republicans over the UW pay raises as well as the blockage of funds for various conservation projects. The suit questions whether powerful joint committees can block dedicated spending items on their own; the outcome of the case could determine whether future showdowns happen in the future.  

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