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Republican lawmakers seek to eliminate DEI statements ‘once and for all’

A Republican bill meant to help eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses could potentially impede some Republican lawmakers’ other goals, including hiring conservative faculty, a representative from the University of Wisconsin System testified Tuesday. He also said the bill could have a negative impact on public universities due to the penalties that are included. 

AB 1065 would bar University of Wisconsin System institutions and technical colleges from requesting that students, student groups or faculty pledge “allegiance to” or make “a statement of support of or opposition to any political ideology or movement” as a condition for admission, recognition, funding, hiring and more. The bill specifically includes language stating the prohibition would include “a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion.” 

The bill, coauthored by Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie) and Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), was considered by lawmakers during a public hearing in the Assembly Colleges and Universities committee on Tuesday. 

“Mandatory diversity statements and other academic loyalty oaths violate academic freedom and undermine open inquiry on campus,” Moses said. “Ideological conformity sabotages the purpose of higher education.” 

The bill is part of Republican lawmakers’ plan to address concerns about free speech, specifically when it comes to the perceived stifling of conservative speech, and ongoing DEI efforts throughout the campuses.

Moses said that there have been examples in the last few years of potential students, faculty and staff having to provide DEI statements as part of the application process for various opportunities. He said those types of requirements are “perceived as a political litmus test.” 

The University of Wisconsin System has already agreed to eliminate the use of DEI statements for employees and students. While Moses said that he appreciates UW System President Jay Rothman saying that those would be eliminated, the bill would take “care of it once and for all.”

Deej Lundgren, the UW’s associate vice president for government relations, emphasized Rothman’s and the UW Board of Regents’ commitment to civil dialogue, to ensuring a place for everybody on the state’s campuses and the principle of inclusion within DEI.

“We have done several things to make our students feel more included on campus. We’ll continue to do those things,” Lundgren told lawmakers. “In addition, we have data that shows that if a student feels like they belong in our campus — that they’re included — that it is easier to recruit them, it’s easier to retain them, and it’s easier to graduate them, which is ultimately our goal and mission.”

Lundgren said that he believes the authors of the bill have a good intent, but there are several things that lawmakers should consider, including that overly broad language could impede some of Republican lawmakers’ other goals. 

Lundgren said that the language could potentially prevent the UW System from upholding part of its recent deals on DEI and funding.

Under that deal, the UW System and UW-Madison agreed to several concessions related to DEI, including freezing the number of DEI positions and realigning some of the positions to focus on student success generally. The UW-Madison also agreed to hire a chair of “conservative political thought, classical economic theory or classical liberalism.” 

“As part of that deal, we are required to put an emphasis on hiring conservative faculty,” Lungren said. “We have concerns that under this bill we wouldn’t be able to ask the appropriate questions to find out whether or not they fit that bill and whether or not we can hold up our end of the bargain on hiring those faculty members.” 

Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said that she appreciated Lundgren’s testimony. Pointing to the broad language in the bill, she added that she thought it could potentially affect hiring for the Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue (WICCD), another initiative that has been supported by Republican lawmakers. 

The UW System created WICCD after a free speech survey that found conservative students said they were afraid to express views on certain issues in class. Its purpose is to coordinate academic centers focused on the Constitution and public affairs as a way of enhancing programming, research and knowledge dissemination related to the First Amendment, free expression, and viewpoint diversity.  The committee considered another bill by Rep. Scott Johnson (R-Jefferson) on Tuesday to dedicate $500,000 to WICCD. Its author expressed the  concern that UW-System did not fund WICCD adequately. 

Shankland also brought up concerns about how the broadness of the bill could lead to lawsuits and how that would affect the public universities.

The bill would also allow an applicant, student, student organization, faculty member or prospective faculty member who alleges the provisions in the bill were violated to bring a civil action against the UW System institution or technical college. Plaintiffs would be able to seek injunctive relief, which could include admission as a student, rehiring or promotion to tenure, and damages in court. They would also be entitled to attorney fees if the case were successful.

Lundgren said that there are concerns about what the impact of the penalties could be and noted the Legislature has advanced several bills that would implement penalties. For example, one bill would require institutions to pay up to $100,000 for violations of certain free speech standards. Authors of that bill have argued that the penalties are necessary.

“We have raised concerns about the impact that those penalties could have on a significant population for what, under this bill, would amount to the transgressions of a few,” Lundgren said. 

Shankland also said she was concerned that the bill could be weaponized by individuals.

“You could be hiring dozens of people with 500 applicants, and there could be a completely other reason why you would be set apart, maybe it’s just based on experience alone, and that person could take this statute, if it were to become law, and weaponize it to be promoted or rehired or hired,” Shankland said. “I understand and appreciate the intent of the bill authors, but I do think that this is so broad and open-ended that it could be misused to the detriment of the strength of our Universities of Wisconsin and our technical college system.” 

The state’s public universities and technical colleges would also be required under the bill to make all training materials used for students, faculty and staff as well as policies and guidance on nondiscrimination, DEI, race, ethnicity, sex and bias publicly available on its website.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F02%2F07%2Frepublican-lawmakers-seek-to-eliminate-dei-statements-once-and-for-all%2F by Baylor Spears

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