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UW-Madison answers DEI criticisms with PR campaign

The University of Wisconsin at Madison came under some serious criticism this past year from Republicans in the state legislature over its DEI programs and spending.

Now administrators are responding; not, as they might, with cuts to their DEI programming and faculty and administrative hiring, but with a public relations campaign.

The marketing campaign is not directed at legislators, it is targeted at voters who elect the legislators. The goal is to provide them a more positive image of the university so they will support state spending for it, as Inside Higher Ed reported.

In a Request for Proposals to marketing firms, the university proffered its two goals of “combating negative public opinion and convincing lawmakers that it is a nonpartisan institution worthy of both state investment and public trust,” the news outlet reported.

“There is a general, national narrative around higher ed that characterizes universities as elitist and too difficult to get into, too expensive…and too radical/leftist,” the university wrote in its RFP posted publicly on Feb. 27. “We find these national sentiments are shared by many Wisconsinites about UW-Madison.”

The marketing campaign could cost up to $1 million dollars, according to the request, which IHE reports is more than double the university’s usual media budget.

Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison’s director of media relations, told Inside Higher Ed that there is not, yet, an existing plan for the media campaign, but it would rely on polling and market research.

“But public polling on the purpose of higher education is increasingly bleak: survey after survey shows Americans are more skeptical than ever of the value of a college degree, and many associate higher ed with free speech issues and elitism, connections reinforced by many lawmakers and media outlets,” wrote Inside Higher Ed.

The last budget cycle included multimillion dollar cuts to the university system in the state, and, specifically, a $7 million cut to UW Madison’s budget, the Daily Cardinal student newspaper reported.

But the University of Wisconsin system is earmarked to receive $800 million for infrastructure improvements and pay raises in exchange for voting to cut large chunks of DEI programming, an agreement that was forged after Republican lawmakers used its purse strings to force system leaders to scale back their massive DEI infrastructure.

The deal, agreed to in December, also requires UW system campuses to refrain from adding new DEI positions through December 2026. Administrators must also reassign at least one third of their current DEI-focused employees to roles dedicated to academic and student success, as The College Fix previously reported.

Mandatory DEI statements in admissions and hiring were also abolished under the deal.

In exchange, the legislature will fund pay raises as well as building construction and improvement projects at campuses across the system. System leaders “will have the opportunity to give pay raises to its 34,000 employees and build a new $347 million engineering building in Madison,” NPR’s Wisconsin Public Radio reported Dec. 13.

Teresa Valereo Parrot, a higher education consulting firm owner in Wisconsin, said she thinks UW-Madison deserves credit for being the first to tackle what she calls “industry reputation issues,” that appealing straight to the public makes sense, according to Inside Higher Ed.

It remains to be seen whether the PR campaign will convince voters.

MORE: University of Wisconsin regents reverse course, will cut DEI in exchange for $800 million

IMAGE: EQ Roy / Shutterstock

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