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Dive Brief:

  • The Universities of Wisconsin put forward a plan Monday that would devote $32 million to broaden training in high-demand fields like engineering, in an attempt to end a standoff with Republican state legislators who withheld funding over the system’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
  • Lawmakers cut the $32 million from the state’s 2023–25 two-year budget earlier this year because that was the amount they calculated the public system spent on DEI programming. They had also attempted to slash nearly 200 system DEI-related jobs in the budget, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the provision
  • The system’s workforce development proposal may not sway Republicans. Robin Vos, Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, has reportedly held firm that the system needs to drop all DEI efforts to unlock the funds. 

Dive Insight:

Wisconsin Republicans have been at legislative war with the state’s public university system, which has 13 institutions and enrolls roughly 161,000 students. 

They’ve attempted to emulate Republicans in other states, like Florida, that have banned DEI spending at public colleges. This is part of a widespread conservative movement to end colleges’ diversity programs, which Republicans argue have strayed from their purpose and instead promote divisiveness.

However, Evers and the university system itself have stymied the Wisconsin GOP. Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman has refused to eliminate DEI programs, saying his support for them has not wavered.

The system’s workforce development plan “is exactly what the legislature is looking for,” Rothman said in a statement Monday.

It calls for the system to invest in programs that would produce more engineers, healthcare professionals, data scientists, and business and finance leaders. The system expects to graduate more than 9,300 more students in these areas over five years.

University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee would each receive $2.5 million, while the remaining 11 universities would each get $1 million annually over the next two years.

The system governing board is to vote on the proposal Thursday, and then Rothman would deliver the plan to lawmakers. Republicans control both chambers of Wisconsin’s Legislature.

“I’m proud of the critical role our universities play in shaping Wisconsin’s workforce of the future,” Rothman said. “The Universities of Wisconsin have the capacity to add thousands of graduates to the workforce in critical areas, and I know we’ll be responsible stewards of this funding when it is released by the legislature.”

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have been escalating pressure on the system to halt DEI initiatives. In June, they denied $197 million that Evers requested for a high-priority construction project, a new engineering building on the Madison campus.

And last month, lawmakers voted to exclude Universities of Wisconsin employees from 6% pay raises over two years previously approved for all state staff. 

Evers, the governor, sued Republican lawmakers last week for withholding the pay increases, saying they were circumventing typical legislative processes. Republicans have written off the lawsuit as frivolous.