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Wisconsin schools superintendent wants UW regents to delay vote on deal to limit diversity positions

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Posted at 4:18 PM, Dec 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-13 17:18:16-05

MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin's state school superintendent on Wednesday called for Universities of Wisconsin regents to delay a second vote on a deal with Republican legislators that would limit campus diversity positions in exchange for employee raises and money for construction projects.

The regents rejected the deal on a 9-8 vote on Saturday amid complaints from Democrats that the deal sells out minority and LGBTQ+ students and faculty.

But after a closed-door meeting Tuesday led by Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman, the regents called for another vote Wednesday evening. The agenda indicated that Regent Amy Blumenfeld Bogost, who voted against the proposal on Saturday, had switched positions and now supported it.

State Superintendent Jill Underly automatically doubles as a regent by virtue of her position. She did not vote Saturday because she was out of the country. She issued a statement Wednesday asking regents to reschedule the second vote because she was still out of country, has inconsistent internet access and won't be available at the meeting time.

“It is clear the Regents are divided, and further work is necessary. I look forward to being able to be a full part of that conversation upon my return to the U.S. next week," Underly said in a statement requesting Wednesday's session be rescheduled.

She did not say where she was or why she was overseas. State Department of Public Instruction spokesperson Chris Bucher said in an email to The Associated Press that she was vacationing in Europe with her elderly mother.

Universities of Wisconsin spokesperson Mark Pitsch didn't immediately respond to a message asking if the regents would reschedule the vote.

The state budget that Republicans approved and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed this past summer called for a 6% raise for university employees over the next two years. But Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos refused to allow the GOP-controlled Legislature’s employment committee to release the money in an attempt to force the regents to reduce the number of positions that work on diversity, equity and inclusion projects.

Vos has insisted such efforts only produce division. The dispute reflects a broader cultural battle over college diversity initiatives playing out across the country.

Evers has leveled intense criticism toward Vos and Republicans for withholding the raises. The governor filed a lawsuit with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in October arguing that lawmakers have overstepped their authority by blocking the raises.

Last week Rothman and Vos unveiled a deal that call for releasing money for the raises as well as funding various campus construction projects. The list includes $200 million for a new UW-Madison engineering building, a top priority for officials at the flagship university, as well as money to renovate dorms at UW-Whitewater, Vos’ alma mater. The Legislature’s budget committee will hand the university system an additional $32 million for workforce development.

The regents, in turn, will freeze hiring for diversity positions through 2026 and shift at least 43 current diversity positions to focus on “student success.” Campuses also will have to eliminate statements supporting diversity on student applications. UW-Madison will have to end an affirmative action faculty hiring program and create a position focused on conservative thought.

UW-Madison must accept all applicants who finished in the top 5% of their class at Wisconsin high school. The regional campuses must accept all applicants who finished in the top 10% of their class at a state high school.

Chris Kapenga, a Republican who serves as president of the state Senate, has said that regents who vote against the deal may not get confirmed. Bogost, John Miller and Dana Wachs all voted against the deal on Saturday and have yet to be confirmed.

Bogost did not return messages Wednesday. Wachs told The Associated Press that he wouldn't change his vote but didn't know what would happen Wednesday night. Regent Ed Manydeeds, who voted against the deal on Saturday, also said he would vote against it again Wednesday but he didn’t know what the final outcome would be.

“I’m not certain,” Manydeeds said. “I don’t politic my fellow regents to find out what they’re thinking. At the last vote we had, I was surprised. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Legislature's Black Caucus planned an afternoon news conference outside the state Capitol to rail against the deal. The caucus released a statement last week saying the proposal left them “appalled and ashamed.”

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.