Posted on December 11, 2023

An End to Wisconsin’s Higher Ed Budget Standoff

Liam Knox, Inside Higher Ed, December 8, 2023

A nearly six-month standoff between the Universities of Wisconsin and the Republican-led state Legislature over diversity, equity and inclusion spending seemed poised to end Saturday morning. The Board of Regents had agreed to vote on a deal between system leaders and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that would freeze and cap DEI hiring in exchange for funding held up by the Legislature.

But in a shocking turn of events, the board rejected the proposal 9 to 8 , leaving over $800 million on the table and the future of the system’s DEI offices in limbo. The board also voted not to table the vote for further discussion, effectively killing the deal.

On Friday, UW system president Jay Rothman and UW Madison chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced they’d reached a deal with Vos after weeks of secret negotiations. The system would make significant concessions on DEI initiatives and staffing in exchange for a release on much-needed funding for pay raises, utilities and construction projects—including a new engineering building at UW Madison—which the Legislature rejected last month.

“The agreement we’ve reached is the result of an arduous process,” Rothman said during a press conference Friday afternoon. “While it funds UW, it also makes compromises to get there.”

Rothman recommended that the board vote to approve the resolution at a special meeting Saturday morning. But in the hours between the deal’s announcement at the meeting, multiple factions within the UW system and state government made a concerted effort to convince regents to vote no. The faculty union issued a strong rebuke of the proposal Friday afternoon, and that night Assembly Democrats and UW student groups gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the deal, which they sent to board members.

Representative Dora Drake, a Democrat and member of the House’s Black caucus, told Inside Higher Ed that she did not expect the proposal to be defeated, but she was heartened.

“I was very surprised, but I feel very good about the board’s decision,” she said. “We’re making sure students of color feel welcome and protected at our universities.”

In a statement issued Saturday afternoon, Vos and his fellow Assembly Republicans issued a statement decrying the decision. They did not indicate whether they were open to returning to the negotiating table with system leaders.

“It’s a shame they’ve denied employees their raises and the almost $1 billion investment that would have been made across the UW system, all so they could continue their ideological campaign to force students to believe only one viewpoint is acceptable on campus,” the statement read.

The failed proposal included the following concessions from the system:

  • A cap on all DEI hires, to remain in place for three years.
  • Renaming and redefining the positions of one-third of DEI staff—about 45 system employees—to roles more closely related to student success.
  • A three-year freeze on all new administrative hires across the system.
  • Elimination of the UW TOP program, an initiative to promote diverse faculty hires, to be replaced, starting next year, with a program promoting faculty who support underrepresented and “at-risk” students.
  • Excising the diversity statement currently included on applications to two UW campuses.
  • Creating a new endowed faculty chair at UW Madison dedicated to conservative economic thought, classical economics or classical liberalism.
  • Implementing a new module on free expression for all entering undergraduate students.
  • Adoption of a guaranteed admissions program for the top 10 percent of state high school graduates, who would automatically be accepted to all UW campuses except Madison, which would take the top 5 percent.

In return, the state Legislature would free up funding for pay raises by Dec. 31 at the latest, as well as over $800 million in funding for utilities, maintenance and essential construction projects like new dormitories and the long-awaited engineering facility at UW Madison.


Critics described the war of attrition that played out in the Wisconsin Legislature as an unorthodox tactic in an increasingly bitter conflict, and its success could embolden other states with split governments, such as Kentucky, to take similar action.

In the lead-up to the vote, Drake said that while she understood the pressure the system has been under, the money isn’t worth the price of the political and cultural victory she believes the system would be handing to Wisconsin Republicans—and other conservative state legislators across the country.


In June, House Speaker Vos held up a vote on the state budget by proposing a last-minute $32 million cut to the system—the amount that Vos alleged UW is currently spending on the salaries of DEI-focused employees—unless the university eliminated its DEI offices and positions. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, threatened to veto the entire state budget, and the appropriations process ground to a halt.

The state budget wound up passing with a partial veto by Evers that prevented DEI staff cuts, though it still included significant cuts to higher ed funding in a year of ample financial surplus for the state. But at the last minute Vos made good on his threat to block the $32 million, which the system had earmarked for staff cost-of-living adjustments and raises. That money has been in limbo ever since.

After months at a standstill, the pitched battle over the withheld higher ed funding reached a boiling point this fall. Evers sued Republican lawmakers for “obstructing basic government functions” by freezing funding. In early November, the UW system proposed a plan to secure the money by promising to invest the funds in workforce development for engineers, nurses, data scientists and businesspeople, but Vos stood firm in his demand that the university also cut back on diversity programs.