The party of small government is looking to block the University of Wisconsin System schools from enforcing their own health and safety measures — policies designed to protect students.
As the delta variant spreads, more UW System schools have implemented mask mandates or expanded testing mandates to prevent rising COVID-19 infections on campuses.
In response to these policies and the possibility of more to follow, the Republican-led Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, also known as the JCRAR, voted Aug. 3 along party lines to limit UW schools’ authority to unilaterally create health provisions. The vote established that any UW school’s COVID-19-related health measures must be submitted to the JCRAR within thirty days and approved by the committee.
This ruling also came with no public hearing, ridding the process of transparency and indicating Republicans knew the action they were taking would be an irresponsible threat to public health. When Wisconsin Republicans prevent a transparent democratic process by sneaking around behind closed doors and rushing votes on the committees they control, it’s clear their only motivation is political.
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Mere hours after the JCRAR vote, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced a timely mask mandate for UW-Madison Aug. 5. Blank justified the decision as a “responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the University,” with no mention of the JCRAR decision.
Interim UW President and former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson broke away from his party later in Aug. to declare UW schools don’t need the legislature’s permission to enforce health mandates.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” Thompson said in an AP News article. “Even though I don’t want to pick a fight with the Legislature, I’m going to stand my ground … I’ve got the right and the authority and the responsibility to do what’s necessary to keep the universities open.”
Thompson has avoided a UW System vaccine mandate by trying to provide other incentives for getting students vaccinated, such as the “70 for 70” campaign where vaccinated students will be eligible to win $7,000 scholarships if their campus reaches a 70% vaccination rate.
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But, Thompson hasn’t completely ruled out the option of a vaccine mandate. Other Big Ten schools, like the University of Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, Indiana University and Rutgers University have all implemented vaccine mandates.
Shortly after, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, announced he would be pushing for the State Legislature to sue the UW System for allowing its schools to create their own health mandates.
Nass submitted an official letter to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos Sept. 7, arguing UW System campuses are violating the Wisconsin Administrative Rules Law passed earlier this year.
“The UW System is not merely refusing to follow state law, it is now an agency challenging the constitutional authority of the Legislature,” Nass said in the statement. “The UW System has offered ever changing spin in regard to their claim of having some sort of mythical independent authority … ”
It remains to be seen whether or not LeMahieu and Vos will actually pursue a lawsuit against the UW System. Doing so would solidify Republicans’ desperate urge to appear as if they are standing up for personal liberties, hiding the reality that they are using government overreach to endanger student safety.
This GOP power move is immensely hypocritical coming from the supposedly staple party of small government. Legislative Republicans preach minimizing government control every chance they get, yet their core values crumble whenever they have the opportunity to rile up their base.
Even with 90% of students fully vaccinated, UW students would be safest with a vaccine mandate at the university level. Some are using this high vaccination statistic to argue UW doesn’t need a mandate at all, but the precedent this situation will set is important for other large universities also hesitant to declare a mandate.
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Social responsibility and institutional autonomy are core values of higher education. Republican attempts to block UW System COVID-19 policies contradict both. These actions detract from the “Wisconsin Idea” that the government and universities are supposed to learn from each other in an advantageous relationship to promote innovation.
The actions of Nass and other Wisconsin GOP leaders are antithetical to the values of higher education. UW schools should not need to seek approval from the majority party when it comes to creating basic mandates to enforce the actions consistently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and top U.S. health officials.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, it’s crucial we allow universities to create health policies to protect immunocompromised students, staff and faculty, as well as return campus to the normalcy both Republicans and Democrats want.