Several donors for the $347 million project to build a new College of Engineering building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said they were stunned over the weekend when they heard that the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents had rejected a deal that Republican leadership in the Legislature had reached with UW president Jay Rothman to provide funding for the project, and would have given the university system’s employees a pay raise in exchange for UW staff position cuts for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I don’t think anybody saw that coming,” said Bill Monfre, a Green Bay-area resident who chairs both the Industrial Advisory Board for the UW-Madison College of Engineering and a coalition that advocates for a new College of Engineering building. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Monfre is one of three private contingent donors to the UW-Madison College of Engineering building project that BizTimes Milwaukee spoke to Monday about the Board of Regents rejecting the deal that would have provided state funds for the project. They are all UW-Madison alumni.
Richard Antoine, a retired former Procter & Gamble employee, member of the UW-Madison College of Engineering Industrial Advisory Board and now a Florida resident, said he was “shocked” when he heard the Board of Regents rejected the deal.
“There is no other word to better describe it,” he said. “Totally shocked.”
“It’s certainly been an up and down range of emotions,” said Jeff Roznowski, a former Wauwatosa alderman and another member of the coalition advocating for the UW-Madison College of Engineering building project, who worked for 30 years as a senior executive in engineering in the telecommunications industry. “I was very surprised (by the Board of Regents vote).”
Supporters of plans for a new UW-Madison College of Engineering building say it is needed to attract and develop the engineering talent needed for the state’s economy.
“Everybody understands the current labor situation. It’s very difficult to find help. You have a lot of companies that are looking for engineers,” said Monfre, a longtime Procter & Gamble employee and small business owner, now retired. “Engineers are in demand, and there aren’t enough of them. So, this building is part of a strategic plan that the College of Engineering has laid out to increase enrollment in order to produce more engineers. There are a lot of employers that I have spoken with that have said if we can’t get the engineers that we need from the University of Wisconsin, they we’ll go elsewhere to get them.”
“There’s a demand for engineering graduates from Madison,” Antoine said. “But there is an incredible gap between the number of applicants who apply to Madison and the number of people that we can take. There’s seven applicants for every opening in the freshman class. We just don’t have enough space to put them. And when we graduate people there are nine job offers for every graduating student because we can’t graduate enough students.”
Business leaders with Ariens, American Family Insurance, Epic Systems, Generac, GRAEF, Johnson Controls, Kohler, Milwaukee Tool, Oshkosh Corp., Rockwell Automation, Trek and numerous other Wisconsin companies have called on the Legislature to provide funding for the project.
Supporters also say the new UW-Madison College of Engineering building is needed for the school to remain competitive with peer institutions.
“There are other Big Ten schools that have good engineering schools, they are much larger than we are, they have newer buildings and facilities,” Roznowski said. “Frankly we need to catch up competitively.”
“The engineering school at Madison is one of the best at public schools in the country, rated very highly, valued by employees,” Antoine said. “But the facilities are generally old. Until this year the lab that I used when I was a chemical engineering student 50 years ago was still there. They changed it this summer. You can’t run a world class engineering program with facilities that are just so outdated.”
Private donors are expected to raise nearly $150 million for the project, on the condition that the state provides the remaining $200 million. Philanthropists who are supporting the project could pull their pledges if the state funding isn’t provided.
“That $150 million (in private donations) is contingent on the state funding the $200 million,” Monfre said. “If that doesn’t happen, then those dollars go away.”
Republicans, who control the Legislature, rejected funding for the UW-Madison College of Engineering building project in June and have refused to approve funding for pay increases for UW staff. Republicans have been extremely critical of the DEI programs in the UW system and have sought changes, resulting in a UW funding standoff that has gone on for months and appeared to be over with the deal reached last week between Rothman and Republicans.
“In recent years we’ve seen a growing emphasis on concepts that amplify ideas of division, exclusion and indoctrination,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement last week about the deal. “Our caucus objective has always been aimed at dismantling the bureaucracy and division related to DEI and reprioritizing our universities towards an emphasis on what matter-student success and achievement.”
But the Board of Regents voted narrowly, 8-9, on Saturday to reject the deal.
“It’s clear the regents are deeply divided over this proposal, have immense concerns about this process and the difficult position they were put in, and are all committed to their charge—doing what’s best for our past, present, and future students, faculty, and staff, and the institutions that have defined our state for generations,” Gov. Tony Evers said in response to the Board of Regents vote. “I look forward to this discussion continuing in the weeks and months ahead. I urge legislative Republicans to remain in those conversations so we can work together and find common ground to do what’s best for the UW System, including investing in the UW-Madison engineering building.”
Supporters of the DEI programs said they are vital for making the Universities of Wisconsin an environment in which all students feel comfortable and accepted.
“Students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members sent a clear message to the UW Board of Regents — we must fight for campuses where everyone is welcomed and feels they belong,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said on social media.
“There’s certainly an element, a strong element of the state where DEI is very important. I understand to a degree the difficult decision that the regents had to make,” Roznowski said.
But supporters of the deal argue that it’s the best option for the Universities of Wisconsin at this time, and alters but doesn’t eliminate the DEI programs.
“I think (UW-Madison chancellor Jennifer Mnookin) did a great job coming out explaining that we are not getting rid of our core values. This is something that we endear and are not getting rid of. And I thought (Rothman) did a great job of explaining that as well,” Monfre said. “It wasn’t that the (DEI) system was being gutted or anything. There were some changes that were going to be made that were palatable. I thought they did a great job of positioning and negotiating and coming to an endpoint that they felt was the best deal and the fairest deal for everybody at the time.”
Vos said on Monday that the deal Republicans made with Rothman was final and that he was not open to making any changes.
The Board of Regents is scheduled to hold another meeting Tuesday, with a closed session to “deliberate and negotiate funding proposals.”
Without state funding for the UW-Madison College of Engineering building, the project could be delayed until the 2025-27 budget cycle. But donors to the project could lose patience and pull their funds rather than wait until then and hope that the state funding eventually comes through.
“That’s the big risk in all of this,” Roznowski said. “If we have to wait for the next budget cycle in 2025, this money is all contingent on this happening now. That goes away. We start new fundraising. That’s a large effort. It’s a real risk and a real concern. If this doesn’t happen now, we’re also starting over with fundraising.”
“A lot of donors are going to take their money elsewhere if this isn’t turned around,” Antoine said. “I know a number of them. They said, ‘well, then we’re going to have to go somewhere else, because that’s an indication that they don’t want the building or want our money.’ It’s a big problem. A very big problem.”