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Dive Brief:

  • Wisconsin lawmakers on Tuesday excluded Universities of Wisconsin workers from pay raise approvals for all state employees in a protracted battle over the system’s diversity, equity and inclusion spending.
  • The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations unanimously approved a plan to grant most state workers a 6% pay increase over two years. But the Republican committee leaders did not include system employees in the vote, using raises as a bargaining chip to gain approval of new university positions.
  • In September, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would block all pay raises for university employees until the system cuts diversity, equity and inclusion spending by $32 million. The move came after lawmakers cut the system’s budget by that same amount, which is how much they estimated would go toward DEI efforts over the next two years.

Dive Insight:

State lawmakers — mostly conservative ones — have been attacking college DEI policies and programs across the country. GOP lawmakers often argue DEI offices chill free speech and alienate students by treating them differently due to characteristics like gender and race. Some also point to DEI positions as examples of administrative bloat in colleges, which they say raises the cost of higher education.

The Universities of Wisconsin, which is rebranding from the University of Wisconsin system, has added almost 1,400 positions since 2017, Vos said Tuesday. He argued that the system — which employs about 35,000 people — has gone unchecked because it’s the only state agency that can add jobs without legislative approval.

Vos, who also co-chairs the employment relations committee, proposed only allowing university raises to go forward if the system ceded approval of new positions to the Legislature. Republicans control both chambers.

He called on university employees to petition their bosses to accept a trade: pay raises in exchange for legislature control of position approval.

“We’re trying to actually have some kind of control for the taxpayers,” he said. “Because when I talk to people, they do not want an ideological agenda.”

Democratic members of the joint committee pushed back on Vos’ plan Tuesday.

“Waging political battles over diversity, equity and inclusion against very hardworking people in our state — educators, administrators, employees — is just not how we move Wisconsin forward,” state Rep. Greta Neubauer said during the meeting. 

Neubauer, whose district includes UW-Parkside, voted for the raises but said she wished committee leaders had included university employees. She said Vos’ proposal puts the employees in an impossible position.

“They fear that they are being used as political pawns,” she said. “And they just want to do their jobs.”

State Sen. Howard Marklein, a Republican, praised the compensation plans but expressed disappointment that increases for university employees were not up for discussion. UW-Platteville’s campus is within his district.

“The local employees on our campus should not be penalized for policy decisions made by leaders of the university system,” Marklein said in a statement Tuesday. “The custodians, executive assistants, food service staff, and local faculty at UW-Platteville have very little to do with the politics of the UW System.”

The withheld pay raises are part of a broader fight over the system’s DEI efforts. 

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers approved the state’s budget plan in July — which included the $32 million cut to the system — but used a partial veto to save 188 university DEI positions that would have been eliminated under the Republican plan. 

Some campuses appear to be proactively moving away from DEI language to insulate themselves from conservative furor.

UW-Whitewater recently renamed and reorganized its DEI office, removing terms like diversity and multicultural, according to WKOW

The campus’s website currently includes a statement on inclusivity that does not use either word. But the campus’ chancellor told the local news outlet that the office’s programming will remain unchanged.