Regents Reverse: UW board accepts deal exchanging reduced DEI for withheld funding, pay raises

Regents Reverse: UW board accepts deal exchanging reduced DEI for withheld funding, pay raises

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- University of Wisconsin regents reversed course Wednesday night and accepted a proposal to cut down the number of diversity-related positions in exchange for about $800 million, including the release of withheld pay raises and funding for a number of building projects.

The vote came just four days after regents first rejected the deal in a 9-8 vote Saturday morning. Following a closed session meeting Tuesday, the regents scheduled another vote on the proposal, which was negotiated by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and System President Jay Rothman.

Wednesday's vote was 11-6; three regents who originally rejected the deal flipped their votes.

Regent Vice President Amy Blumenfeld Bogost indicated Tuesday she'd flipped from no to yes. Bogost was listed on Wednesday's meeting notice as one of three regents joining Rothman in recommending passage of the proposal. Of those regents, Bogost was the only one who voted Saturday against the accepting the agreement.

Regent President Karen Walsh and Jennifer Staton, a student regent from UW-Parkside, joined Blumenfeld Bogost in flipping their votes.  Blumenfeld Bogost, Walsh and Staton all said they were moved by the words of chancellors at different campuses who said there would be immediate harm without the additional funding.

"We have heard from all of the chancellors, and they have asked for our help, and right now, I will place their needs above my own," Staton said. "They are the leaders of their campuses and we have entrusted them with their leadership. The reality is without this resolution, [UW] Parkside may not be here in the years to come."

The deal called for the UW System to "restructure" 43 positions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, known as DEI. The universities would also freeze the number of state-funded, non-faculty positions through 2026.

Another change would be the creation of a new faculty department chair at Madison's campus dedicated to conservative political thought.

In making those concessions, the UW System's 34,000 employees would get pay raises that were already built into the current state budget and the universities would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for campus construction projects, including a new engineering hall at UW-Madison.

Other campuses would receive dollars for long awaited renovations, utility improvements, and the demolition of outdated buildings.

Chancellors who spoke before the vote Wednesday said they were confident campuses could keep working to make underrepresented students, such as racial minorities, low-income families, LGBTQ students and veterans, feel welcome even with fewer positions formally dedicated to DEI.

"We must continue to press forward, and we can make this work," UW-Whitewater Chancellor Corey King said.

Other campus leaders said they worried rejecting the deal would embolden the GOP-controlled Legislature to seek deeper cuts.

"For example, some could say, 'If they don't need these funds for raises or buildings or operations, what else can be reduced?'" UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said.

State Superintendent Jill Underly was the only regent who didn't vote Wednesday. She also missed Saturday's vote before unsuccessfully calling for the board to reschedule until she was back in the country next week.

Through the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), Underly said she was in Europe on a long-planned vacation with her elderly mother and didn't have reliable internet access. Walsh noted during the meeting Blumenfeld Bogost was joining the meeting from Thailand.

A response from DPI did not address the question of why Underly hadn't publicly called to delay Saturday's vote, but in a statement on her behalf said, “it is clear the Regents are divided, and further work is necessary.”

Following the vote, Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement he disagreed with the regents' decision and added he was frustrated with the proposal, as well as the process of how it was approved.

“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.

Vos, the state's most powerful lawmaker, said after the vote Republicans would keep pushing to pare down DEI initiatives on UW campuses, labeling the concept 'divisive.'

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

Rothman spoke to reporters after the vote, and he was asked if this was setting a precedent allowing the Legislature to hold up future funding in exchange for deeper DEI cuts.

"I think we face that issue when we come to it," Rothman said. "I'm not gonna speculate about what the next cycle may be."

The Legislative Black Caucus and Assembly Democrats echoed those sediments earlier in the day and called on regents who previously opposed the deal to reject it again.

Rep. Dora Drake, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, expressed disappointment with the agreement largely because it would limit diversity efforts, she says would impact students and faculty of color.

Drake also emphasized the proposal would shed a bad light on the UW System from having to negotiate these terms.

"It is discriminatory against faculty and staff of color because their experiences should never have a price tag," Drake said.

Vos and Senate President Chris Kapenga warned ahead of the vote unconfirmed regents, who were appointed by Evers and rejected the deal, could lose their jobs as soon as January. That's when Senate Republicans will likely vote down Evers appointments to the board, Kapenga said. 

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