ICYMI: Republican “DEI Issue” Stalls Nursing School Funding

May 22, 2024

ICYMI: Republican “DEI Issue” Stalls Nursing School Funding

MADISON, Wis. — Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed how Robin Vos’ political games are obstructing the development of Wisconsin’s health care workforce in the face of significant nursing shortages across the state.

Email records obtained by the Journal Sentinel revealed that UW nursing school deans were working to secure increased funding to graduate more nurses, but Robin Vos’ campaign against diversity, equity, and inclusion brought the effort to invest in nursing schools to a halt. Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee eventually gave in to Robin Vos and cut the Universities of Wisconsin’s overall budget by $32 million. 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: University of Wisconsin nursing deans lobbied for money to graduate more nurses. Then DEI questions arose

By: Kelly Meyerhofer

Nursing school deans across the state were hopeful around this time last year. They were working with a Republican state senator on a plan to increase student enrollment and graduate more nurses.

But concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, became a sticking point in the process and played a role in the plan stalling out, according to recently released emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The records offer another example of how DEI is influencing the legislative process and reshaping how higher education leaders respond.

Leading the failed effort were state Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, and Kim Litwack, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Nursing. Litwack told the other UW nursing school deans last June that Cabral-Guevara had the votes in the Senate to give the six UW nursing schools $1 million each, as well as $3 million to private institutions with nursing schools.

There was a caveat.

“IF … we can somehow separate UW nursing from the UW DEI issue that Robin Vos is hot about,” Litwack wrote to the other nursing deans, referring to the Republican Assembly speaker who last year launched a campaign against DEI programming on UW campuses. “He is willing to support the nursing initiative IF we can find a way, truthfully, to talk about our way of doing things.”

The Legislature never took up Cabral-Guevara’s proposal to get nursing schools more money. The records don’t show why the plan didn’t pan out. Vos did not return requests for comment, nor did Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg.

Cabral-Guevara’s office declined an interview request. Her chief of staff, Ryan Retza, said DEI “was not the sole reason the proposal did not come to fruition.” Other nursing-related budget priorities “were given emphasis,” such as a nurse educators program that Republicans continued funding at $5 million per year but declined to increase to $10 million annually as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers requested.

“This is one budget project that just simply was not able to pan out successfully,” Cabral-Guevara said in a statement to the Journal Sentinel about her plan. “The proposal would have supported our nursing students and schools, boosting retention and improving access to programs.”

Emails show Cabral-Guevara reached out to Litwack in March 2023 about nursing education legislation she was crafting. The state senator is a nurse practitioner who previously taught at the UW-Oshkosh College of Nursing.

Modeling by the state Department of Workforce Development shows Wisconsin is expected to be short by about 20,000 nurses by 2040.

Litwack asked the other deans at UW-Madison, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Green Bay, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stevens Point for feedback on Cabral-Guevara’s proposal. The records, which were part of a broader Journal Sentinel request that took the UW System nine months to turn over, show the deans agreed on a plan to increase enrollment by 10% over two years.

In mid-June, Litwack told the other deans Cabral-Guevara told her she had enough votes in her chamber but DEI remained a concern for Vos. Litwack said she explained to the senator how nursing colleges’ accrediting bodies encourage a holistic admissions process that considers factors beyond GPA, how hospitals prioritize diversifying their workforce and how health outcomes improve when patients identify with their caregivers.

“I explained and Rachel being a nurse gets it,” Litwack wrote, but she asked the deans for help explaining their position. She also asked them to confirm whether their schools gave extra points for diversity in the admissions process or employed their own diversity officer.

UW-Green Bay nursing dean Christine Vandenhouten thanked Litwack for “taking on this behemoth of an issue” and answered Litwack’s questions.

“Good luck,” Vandenhouten signed at the end of the email.

Litwack then asked about schools’ pronoun policies and mandatory diversity statements. She said UWM didn’t require students to designate their pronouns but respected students who made their own requests.

Seon Yoon Chung of UW-Oshkosh confirmed the nursing college has no personal-pronoun requirement, no diversity statement mandate and no diversity officer.

Vandenhouten weighed in again, saying UW-Green Bay also didn’t require students to declare personal pronouns or sign a diversity statement. “Good grief,” she wrote.

“This is all coming from RV, not Rachel,” Litwack emailed back, referring to Vos.

Litwack did not respond to an interview request. UWM referred the request to the UW System. UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch in a statement offered appreciation to Evers and the Legislature for past nursing program funding and said additional money would “help us increase our capacity to train the next generation of nurses our state desperately needs.”

Three days after the email exchange among the deans appeared to end, the GOP-controlled budget committee cut the UW System’s budget by $32 million, the estimated amount spent on salaries of DEI employees. Republican lawmakers said campuses shouldn’t force students to view the world through a racial lens.

The temporary cut launched a six-month budget standoff that ended when Vos reached a deal with UW System President Jay Rothman and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin last December. The agreement required campuses to restructure 43 DEI positions, among other provisions.

The deal also reversed the $32 million cut but redirected the money toward workforce development initiatives. Under this plan, nursing schools received $4.5 million more, but the UW System’s overall budget held flat.