Free Speech, Racial Equity Battles Are Playing Out on Wisconsin Campuses
Todd Richmond, Associated Press, May 11, 2023
The fight over racial equity and free speech on Wisconsin college campuses is intensifying, mirroring a national battle as Republicans work to close campus diversity offices and demand that students and faculty treat conservative speakers with respect.
In the past two weeks, the state’s top Republican announced a push to defund the University of Wisconsin System’s diversity efforts — a move the Democratic governor lambasted as ridiculous. Nonetheless, the UW System’s chief announced Thursday that he has barred schools from asking job applicants how they would support diversity.
Meanwhile, a UW-Madison student has posted racial slurs online, triggering bitter protests but no announced discipline. And a state medical college canceled a diversity symposium featuring Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson out of concerns the discussion would be too disruptive, resulting in cries of bias from conservatives.
Amid that backdrop, Republican legislative leaders held a hearing Thursday with only invited speakers to discuss “how the lack of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses affects the quality of higher education.”
Republicans argue that diversity offices, designed to help minorities navigate academia, only heighten racial tensions. And the GOP has maintained for years that colleges don’t give conservative presenters the same opportunities as liberals to speak on campus.
A survey released in February by the UW System, which includes 13 four-year schools, found almost half of the students who responded at least somewhat agree that administrators should bar controversial speakers if some students find the message offensive.
The issues have bubbled to the forefront this month, starting with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ announcement last week that he wants to defund campus diversity offices. He called the offices a waste of taxpayer dollars and said they exacerbate the racial divide.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has called Vos’ proposal “ridiculous,” but Vos’ plan tracks with a national GOP push to dismantle campus diversity offices.
Facing potential budget cuts, UW System President Jay Rothman announced Thursday morning that he ordered chancellors on Wednesday to stop asking job seekers to supply statements on their applications describing how they would support equity and diversity.
Last week a white UW-Madison student posted a racist screed online in which she said she wants to see some Black people enslaved so she can abuse them. The post triggered two days of protests on Wisconsin’s flagship campus with students demanding the student be expelled. University officials condemned the posting but said they can’t take action against legal free speech.
Daniel Hughes, who said he is a student at the college, told the committee that the institution leans so far left that its diversity stances sometimes trump approaching problems scientifically. For example, he said he’s been taught that biological differences between races are a result of systemic racism, not genetics.