Republican legislators are setting their sights on the University of Wisconsin System, scheduling votes Tuesday on contentious bills that look destined for vetoes but will give the GOP talking points on the campaign trail heading into the November election.
The proposals would discourage the teaching of so-called critical race theory; eliminate legal immunity for campus administrators who interfere with freedom of speech; allow students to swap diversity courses for a class on the U.S. Constitution; and guarantee students would get housing and meal plan fees back if campuses close.
No groups had registered in support of the bills as of Friday. Opponents include the American Civil Liberties Union, UW-Madison faculty and the National Association of Social Workers.
Here’s a closer look at the bills:
CRITICAL RACE THEORY
This bill would prohibit UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System leaders from allowing instructors to teach critical race theory, a term for a scholarly movement developed in the 1970s that focuses on the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination in U.S. history and modern society.
The Assembly universities committee amended the bill in December to remove the prohibition on teaching the concepts, tweaking the language to say instructors can’t force students to “affirm, adopt or adhere” to any of the elements of critical race theory. The amendment imposes a 5% reduction in state aid for any violator institution.
“While it is important that our institutions remain committed to teaching history, no student or campus employee should be told to hate themselves,” the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. Rick Gundrum said in written remarks to the Senate universities committee this month.
UW System Interim Vice President for University Relations Jeff Buhrandt countered in his own written remarks that healthy debates about contentious ideas and historical context shouldn’t be limited at the college level.
The bill is up in both the Assembly and Senate on Tuesday.
The proposal is part of a broader national GOP push to block critical race theory instruction ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Oklahoma and Texas have banned critical race theory concepts from public schools. Kansas lawmakers are considering similar legislation. So are legislators in Ohio.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
This proposal would eliminate legal immunity for UW and technical college administrators who deprive anyone of their freedom of expression. The move would allow people to sue administrators who bar conservative speakers on their campuses.
Republicans have long maintained that liberal-leaning colleges discourage or don’t allow speakers with conservative viewpoints to appear on campus and permit left-leaning students to shout them down when they do visit.
UW-Madison officials said in written comments that they support free speech. They said the bill is problematic because employees acting in good faith to protect public safety at events could get sued.
The bill is scheduled for votes in both houses Tuesday.
The legislation would allow UW System students who are required to take a course in diversity or ethnic studies as part of their general education courses to take a class on the U.S. Constitution instead.
“Forcing students to complete classes that view racial and cultural conflict through only one specific lens will not achieve the stated objective,” the measure’s chief Senate sponsor, Duey Stroebel, said in written remarks to the Senate universities committee this month. “By contrast, America’s founding documents show the great aspiration for equality and opportunity for all, alongside where America fell short of its aspirations.”
UW-Stevens Point Associate Dean of General Education and Honors Shanny Luft submitted written remarks saying the bill would leave students less prepared to work in diverse environments.
Both houses were expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.
HOUSING AND MEAL FEES
The bill would require all UW institutions to return housing and meal fees on a prorated basis to students who can’t access the campus for more than a week. Getting barred from campus for misconduct wouldn’t qualify a student for a return.
UW campuses closed in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic seized the country. According to a fiscal estimate from UW System, schools refunded $62 million in room and board fees to students then.
The Assembly was set to vote on the bill Tuesday. The measure was not on the Senate’s agenda for the day.
DO THESE BILLS HAVE A CHANCE?
The measures would appear to have a good chance of passing both the Assembly and the Senate. But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent who served on the UW Board of Regents, will almost certainly veto all of them.