Board Blocks UW System’s $800 Million Deal Amidst Diversity Program Debate

In an unexpected turn of events, the board overseeing state public universities narrowly voted against a deal crafted by University of Wisconsin (UW) System leaders and Republicans regarding campus diversity initiatives. The contentious resolution, aimed at “reimagining” diversity efforts, was seen by many as a compromise that sacrificed the interests of students of color in exchange for an $800 million package encompassing employee pay raises and building projects.

The rejected deal, months in the making, proposed restructuring dozens of diversity staff positions into roles serving all students, freezing the total number of diversity positions for the next three years. Despite UW System President Jay Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin brokering the deal with Republican leaders, the UW Board of Regents voted against the resolution during a special meeting, highlighting the deep divisions on the issue.

Regent Angela Adams voiced strong opposition, stating, “To finally and begrudgingly propose to start funding the universities in exchange for insulting people historically excluded and underrepresented in higher education is a nonstarter for me. It’s divisive, it’s polarizing, and will ultimately lead to even more negative effects on the university system for decades to come.”

The deal faced criticism even before its official announcement, with the Legislative Black Caucus expressing concerns that UW was sacrificing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts for building projects. The agreement aimed to restructure one-third of the 130 DEI positions into roles supporting all students, a move viewed by some as a compromise and others as a betrayal.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a key Republican figure in the negotiations, expressed disappointment over the rejection, emphasizing the compromise reached after almost six months of negotiations. Vos accused the board of denying employees their raises and obstructing a significant investment in the UW System, framing it as an ideological campaign.

The emotional board meeting witnessed candid discussions among members, some on the verge of tears, as they grappled with the message accepting the deal would send to campuses and the potential precedent it might set when seeking funding from the Legislature. Regent Ed Manydeeds, an enrolled member of the South Dakota Standing Rock Sioux tribe, shared a poignant personal experience, emphasizing the importance of not taking hope away from anyone.

In the aftermath of the rejection, UW System President Jay Rothman expressed his disappointment but acknowledged and respected the board’s decision. The deal faced opposition from various quarters, including Assembly Democrats, UW-Madison student government, and faculty members who viewed it as compromising DEI efforts for financial gains.

The rejected deal included provisions such as restructuring diversity positions, ending a faculty hiring program aimed at diversifying faculty ranks at UW-Madison, introducing an online orientation on free speech for incoming students, and guaranteeing admission to the top percentage of Wisconsin high school students.

While Republicans sought more transparency in the admissions process and the removal of diversity statements from student applications, the deal also outlined substantial financial benefits for the UW System, including pay raises, release of funds previously cut from the budget, and approval for various capital projects.

The controversy surrounding this rejected deal adds fuel to the ongoing debate about the balance between diversity initiatives and financial considerations in higher education, as well as the role of state funding in shaping university policies.

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