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A fierce battle over diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education is being waged in the Wisconsin State Assembly, where it has temporarily paralyzed the state budget vote.
Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the State Assembly, proposed cutting $32 million in funding from the University of Wisconsin system next fiscal year, a figure he said was equal to the system’s spending on DEI efforts. The proposal led the 16-member finance committee, which sets the final budget proposal before a vote, to a seven-hour closed-door debate on Tuesday, which ended without a final decision, according to the Associated Press.
Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, weighed in on Wednesday by threatening to veto the entire state budget if the Legislature passed a version that included the cuts.
A spokesperson for Vos said he was not available for comment in time for publication. Evers’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The battle is one of a string of legislative fights over DEI in higher ed in states across the country, which include bills banning DEI initiatives in public universities as well as funding cuts for such efforts. In Wisconsin, where political power is split between the parties, that battle is turning into a prolonged standoff.
“The major question has been, where is Evers going to draw a line in the sand?” said Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at UW Lacrosse who studies state politics. “I think we’ve definitely hit that snag with DEI, and it sets the stage for a kind of showdown we haven’t seen since that delicate power balance was formed.”
The cuts would eat into what is already slated to be a major decrease in funding for the system; Evers’s proposed budget is $130 million less than the system asked for in September, and the Assembly’s final version is likely to be significantly less than that. Meanwhile, the majority of UW campuses are operating with significant deficits, a product of a 10-year tuition freeze and steadily declining state support.
Mark Pitsch, the University of Wisconsin system’s director of media relations, said UW system president Jay Rothman would “wait and see what comes before the [finance] committee” before commenting on the budget negotiations. The committee is required to submit a final proposal by June 30.
Juggling the DEI Hot Potato
Rothman has been walking a political tightrope over DEI since state Republicans began making noise in April about justifying further funding cuts based on DEI spending. Last month he banned diversity hiring statements—though he denied any connection to political headwinds. And he has been a vocal supporter of efforts to ensure greater ideological diversity among students and faculty.
But he has also repeatedly affirmed the system’s commitment to DEI goals, and Vos pointed to the system’s ongoing expenditures on that front as evidence of its ideological bias. Most notably, he cited the system’s recent hiring of Monica Smith as the new chief diversity officer—a decision Rothman allegedly made quietly, without alerting the Board of Regents at the latest meeting, according to the Associated Press.
Smith, whose salary will be $225,000, declined to comment, deferring to Pitsch. She started her position on Monday, the day before Vos threatened to upend the budget vote by cutting $32 million in UW funding.
“I want the university to grow and succeed, but if they are obsessed with spending all the scarce dollars that they have on programs that are clearly divisive and offer little public good, I don’t know why we’d want to support that,” Vos said.
Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association—and a passionate UW Madison alumnus—said Evers’s hard line against the proposed cuts should serve as an example for leaders in states with similarly divided governments where higher ed is under attack, such as North Carolina and Kentucky.
“Evers is taking a strong stand for investments in higher education and he should be applauded for that,” he said. “A cut to the UW system, amid high inflation and rising costs, would be disastrous right now. It’s a shame, because it really is the state’s crown jewel.”
Bluster, Bargains and ‘Trench Warfare’
Republican state legislators have launched a litany of attacks on DEI across the country in the past year. In overwhelmingly red states such as Texas, Florida and Ohio, those efforts have met little resistance.
But Wisconsin is a different animal. Deeply purple, the state has a Democratic governor in Evers and voted by a slim margin for President Biden in 2020. Yet its Republican lawmakers, who support a higher education agenda similar to those embraced by their colleagues in other states, have a strong hold over the Legislature.
Chergosky said the divided government that the state has operated under since Evers’s 2018 election has made deal-making more fraught than ever. That’s especially true since state Republicans hold a significant majority in the Legislature, including a supermajority in the Senate—but not in the Assembly, meaning they’re subject to Evers’s veto power.
“Politics here resembles trench warfare right now, where you get a staredown between the parties to see who’s going to blink first,” Chergosky said. “That really set the stage for today’s battle over the budget, because it means Republicans have to play ball.”
Still, Chergosky said, the bluster of politicians on both sides of the aisle is more likely to result in productive bargaining behind the scenes.
But Representative Dora Drake, chair of the Assembly’s Black caucus, fears that the days of bipartisan negotiation are over. In light of the recent leftward shift of the state Supreme Court and its threat to longtime partisan gerrymandering, Wisconsin Republicans know their time in power may be limited, she said; DEI funding could be a serious sticking point.
“I think it’s a kind of last Hail Mary,” she said. “I honestly think they’re pretty serious about putting the whole budget on hold over this.”
The battle, then, could turn out to be one of attrition: Who will last longer in the trenches?
Harnisch, for one, said he doesn’t see Wisconsin Republicans backing down from an opportunity to cut higher education funding.
“Wisconsin lawmakers have been using the UW system as a punching bag for years,” he said. “There’s no reason to make cuts to higher education amid a multibillion-dollar surplus other than the fact that this has been their agenda time and time again.”
New Cover for an Old Playbook
Last February, the late UW Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank gave a farewell address to the university’s Board of Regents during which she warned that the state’s political divisions would become an “existential threat” to the system and its campuses, which Blank said were being used as “partisan chips” in a game of political poker.
Representative Samba Baldeh, a member of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Black caucus, said the budget debate isn’t about austerity measures or necessary cuts. Wisconsin will enter this budgeting cycle with a record $7 billion surplus, following two years of federal pandemic aid that fattened the coffers of many states. The issue, Baldeh said, is purely ideological.
“DEI is extremely important; it’s about holding onto the idea that we should understand one another better and respect and nurture those differences,” he said. “You don’t have to concede to these demands, and we shouldn’t … you’ve got to stand for something.”
But Harnisch said the same partisan battle has been raging for well over a decade, at least since Scott Walker became a two-term governor in 2011. While the focus on hot-button issues like DEI and critical race theory may be new, he said, the end goal of the Republican contingent—chipping away at public higher education spending—is not.
He cited as evidence the Assembly’s rejection of funding for a new $347 million engineering building at UW Madison, a seemingly nonpartisan request and the top funding priority for the system this budget cycle.
“They say it’s about DEI this time around, but it could be about free speech, or really anything,” he said. “It’s just a continuation of the disastrous record of cuts dating back to Scott Walker.”
The difference, Harnisch said, is that DEI has proven to be great political cover for disinvestment, an issue popular with grassroots conservatives who are likely to give Vos and his colleagues political points for any victory in their war against it. That’s even more important in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans’ political power is more tenuous than ever.
“We’ve seen other states having these DEI conversations, but Wisconsin has seemed to take it to the next level with this,” Harnisch said.
That erosion has taken a serious toll on the system. After many years of declines in funding, the UW system is operating with a total budget deficit of $60 million, with the majority of its 26 campuses in multimillion-dollar deficits of their own. For some—like UW Milwaukee, which is nearly $18 million in the red, or UW Platteville Richland, which is phasing out its in-person programs—the situation is becoming desperate. According to a SHEEO report released last month, Wisconsin ranked 42nd in the nation in higher education funding in 2022.
On Sunday Rothman gave an interview to the local Madison television program Capital City Sunday, in which he warned of difficult cuts in the near future if state support remained stagnant or, as Vos proposes, falls even lower.
“With the tuition freeze, with declining state support, there have been budget cuts all along,” he said. “At some point you’re starting to cut into muscle and bone, not just getting rid of excess … there are going to be some significant changes if we don’t get a higher level of state support.”