DEI Featured

UW System DEI leaders fear for their jobs, and can’t talk about it

Dr. Louis Macias. Photo supplied.

DEI is in danger, and many UW System DEI staff are afraid for their jobs – too afraid to speak out. 

A recent wave in politics has found diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at public universities in jeopardy. UW System’s is on the chopping block right now as Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he wants the Joint Committee on Finance to cut DEI from UW System’s budget. The proposed cut will be around $32 million, 0.48% of UW System’s $6.57 billion, but the impact could be felt through the universities. The state currently has a $7 billion surplus.

The proposed cuts reflect a budding national trend as Republican Legislators have turned their attention to DEI in states like Texas and Florida.

Efforts in DEI started in the 1960s with its roots in anti-discrimination legislative movements. Laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, are only a few examples of DEI efforts in the early stages as the topic continues to become more polarized throughout the nation. Politicians like Democratic State Senator LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee, a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, feel that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what DEI is on the part of legislators seeking to cut it.

“What I see in Milwaukee and from these legislators is that the legislators make the excuse that DEI makes things more divisive because it focuses on color. Their argument is that if you don’t have organizations focusing on color, then you don’t have a divide,” Johnson said. “The reality is that if you don’t have organizations focusing on color, then you don’t have advocacy.”

Senator Johnson states that these organizations are taking the stance that legislators are not going to take themselves. DEI rooted organizations are the ones advocating for equality and equity, not the legislators, the senator says.

Sen. Latonya Johnson. Photo supplied.

Representative Robin Vos has taken a continuous stance against support for UW schools and especially against DEI initiatives, and reiterated his stance on DEI this past Sunday at the Republican Party of Wisconsin State Convention.

“This is probably, to me, the single most important issue that we are facing as a people, as a nation and as, really, humanity,” Vos said at the convention. “The overt racism, the overt exclusion, the overt indoctrination is so deep in the UW system I am embarrassed to be an alumni.”

Fear among the future positions of current DEI officials in UW schools has stonewalled their willingness to speak out on the issue.

UW DEI officials have been afraid to speak on the importance of their jobs. DEI workers at UW are unsure of their status if or when DEI is completely cut. They would rather not risk moving to the top of the list of people let go from their positions or reassigned. Their jobs being in limbo has forced a sense of impending doom, but the feeling is no different from other universities facing the same issue.

Of the five UW System DEI officials that Madison365 was able to speak to, only one was willing to speak on record. All shared the same sentiment — fear and uncertainty as to where their job will be in the immediate future. Madison365 attempted to reach out to multiple DEI officials from universities in Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida and Texas, all states where DEI is under assault. All, like UW DEI officials, felt an uncertainty of their jobs due the current political landscape.

As a result, and to fairly preserve their own self-interests, all refused to speak on record. In total, Madison365 reached out to 15 DEI officials at a variety of universities.

“I think had you called me before all this, I probably would have been willing to talk more,” a DEI official from one of the universities said. “I feel like we’re being more, I don’t want to say censored, but I think people in positions like mine kind of have to be more careful.”

The source wished to remain anonymous to protect their job, but the sentiment is identical to DEI officials from other universities.

Regardless of the status of their jobs in DEI, most vented their frustrations over the predicament at hand.

“I don’t want to delve too much just transparently because of the sensitivities involved in the sort of the political aspect of it, but I believe in DEI work,” said Dr. Louis Macias, chief diversity officer for UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Not just because I do it, but because I’ve seen how it can be redemptive for organizations and for the community … It’s heartbreaking. I think it’s really tough to watch because I’ve seen the best that work has to offer.”

Macias, just as the many others from universities, believes in their work. The political climate halts their ability and willingness to speak much on the importance of what they do. Macias has worked in DEI in Wisconsin and Florida.

In Iowa, the political climate is not much different than Wisconsin for DEI. The state was one of the first to pass a bill to ban “divisive concepts” in 2021. An ensuing shakiness of what that meant rocked the diversity course requirements for the three regent universities — Iowa State, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa.

Madison365 reached out to four DEI officials across the three Iowa universities. All were unwilling to speak due to the current political climate. Iowa’s Board of Regents ordered a halt to any new diversity initiatives for its public universities in May amid legislative pressure.

In Florida and Texas, the two states that started the DEI ban trend, workers are yet to be cut from universities. Madison365 reached out to three DEI officials across Florida State University and The University of Texas at Austin. All were unwilling to speak further due to not knowing the future of their employment at the universities.

DEI officials in Illinois and Minnesota outright refused to speak on the issue of DEI bans. Madison365 reached out to three DEI officials from universities in the state.

In the space of education, Macias is worried that DEI cuts would lead to a shortfall in future careers.

“Who’s the student that’s not going to be inspired in the classroom setting such that they choose a different major? And what’s lost there? We could’ve had another doctor. We could’ve had another teacher,” Macias said.

Private sector businesses in Madison remain strongly dedicated to DEI efforts regardless of legislators’ desire to cut funding to UW Systems.

Promega, a biotech company based headquartered in Madison, has always strived to make its company as inclusive as possible, according to its leadership. Promega’s journey into its current DEI push started in June 2020 following the death of George Floyd.

“DEI has more of a defined root because of the movements in diversity, equity and inclusion in the private sector. I’m not concerned that Promega will change course,” Chris Peguero, DEI program manager at Promega, said. “I think if anything, it’s going to be more sustainable, authentic and real for who we are.”

Promega currently holds five DEI resource groups and a variety of programs to promote inclusion and education. It sees the importance of DEI at the biotech company as better science. Peguero said DEI brings Promega fresh perspectives and eliminates groupthink, which he feels is vital to both its company and to the communities it serves around the world.

Angela Russell. Photo supplied.

TruStage, formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group, also believes that DEI is important to its company culture and how it serves its community. Angela Russell, TruStage’s chief diversity officer and host of Madison365’s Black Oxygen podcast, has seen the progression of DEI at the company.

“When I was coming to work for the organization, people told me, ‘don’t come here.’ People in the community said that they’re not serious about it,” Russell said. “It was a team of one — that team of one was me. Now people want to come to TruStage because of our DEI work. It’s not the other way around.”

Russell has seen TruStage’s growing commitment to DEI through her eight years there. What started as a small team of one has grown into what she considers to be the life blood of TruStage’s ethos. She sees the importance of DEI as a way to break down financial disparity.

“We know that there are tons of disparities around finances across the nation. We are not going to be able to increase the financial wellbeing of folks if we don’t understand differences,” Russell said. “I know that the key driver to the health of a community is financial and economic well being. We’re not going to get to that place… without creating a better financial picture for folks across the nation.”

What DEI can mean for companies can differ from place to place, but what is agreed on is the necessity. DEI leads to positive growth through dismantling barriers in age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and disability.

Currently 21 states have introduced some type of bill to cut DEI from public universities. Six have received legislative approval; five have been signed into law by a governor. Four states, Texas, Florida, Tennessee and North Dakota, have proposed outright bans on DEI.

Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee is expected to vote on UW System’s budget soon.