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Republicans delay vote on University of Wisconsin budget after promises to cut diversity funds

University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.
Mike McGinnis
Getty Images
University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.

Republican state lawmakers on Tuesday suspended a vote on funding for University of Wisconsin campuses, just hours after a top GOP leader promised to slash the college system's budget as part of an ongoing fight over diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, the state's top Republican, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he expected the GOP-controlled Legislature's budget-writing committee to cut all funding that the university system would use for diversity initiatives. He estimated the cuts would total $32 million.

“I hope we have the ability to eliminate that spending. The university should have already chosen to redirect it to something that is more productive and more broadly supported,” Vos said.

That generated a wave of angry reactions from Gov. Tony Evers and other Democrats. After nearly seven hours of closed-door discussions, Republicans who control the finance committee could not come to an agreement and postponed consideration of UW's budget.

Talk of university budget cuts comes just days after Republicans refused to fund the university's top building project priority — a new engineering facility on the flagship Madison campus.

Tensions between Republicans who control the Legislature and the state's university system are nothing new. But the fight this year centers on issues of free speech and UW's work to advance diversity and racial equity.

UW spokesperson Mark Pitsch said salaries for current system employees specifically tasked with working on diversity, equity and inclusion amount to roughly $15.6 million annually. That number does not include funding for diversity events or other initiatives.

Vos has called campus diversity offices a waste of taxpayer money and said they further racial divides. Meanwhile, UW System President Jay Rothman hired a new chief diversity officer with an annual salary of $225,000 who began work on Monday. He did not publicize the hiring at a UW Board of Regents meeting earlier this month.

“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.

The fight reflects a broader cultural battle playing out across the nation over college diversity initiatives. Republican lawmakers this year have proposed more than 30 bills in 12 states to limit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education, an Associated Press analysis found in April.

Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys, whose district includes the UW-Madison campus, called Vos petty ahead of the finance committee meeting and criticized the push to eliminate diversity initiatives.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a major organization in this country that isn’t doing something to help them achieve equity and inclusion,” Roys said. "The UW is the economic engine of the state. Making any cuts to the UW, especially politically motivated ones, is just going to harm every person in this state.”

UW regents asked the Legislature in September for a total spending increase of nearly $436 million in state money over the next two years, citing low revenue from a decadelong tuition freeze and rising costs due to inflation. The budget committee almost certainly will not approve that request, which was about $130 million higher than even Evers wanted for UW, but it did not say when it would reschedule the vote.

Republican Rep. Mark Born, co-chair of the finance committee, declined to take questions at Tuesday's meeting.

If Republicans pass the budget cuts Vos proposed, the UW System could come up nearly half a billion dollars short of what school officials say they need over the next two years.

The fallout could land on the backs of students as UW leaders look to fill gaps in funding.

Rothman proposed tuition and fees hikes ranging from 3% to 5.4% for undergraduates across the 13 colleges in the UW System after Evers proposed giving UW $130 million less than it wanted.

Republicans on the finance committee have largely ignored Evers' proposals, scrapping more than 500 of the governor's budget items last month including proposals for a cabinet-level chief equity officer, 18 equity officers in state agencies and a state-funded diversity, equity and inclusion conference.

The Legislature is expected to complete its budget plan by the end of June, at which point Evers can make adjustments using partial vetoes or send it back to lawmakers for revisions.

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