Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sen. Kelda Roys was elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 2020, having previously served in the State Assembly. As a representative of the University of Wisconsin campus, Roys sat down with The Badger Herald Editorial Board to discuss Wisconsin Republicans’ attacks on higher education.
Tell me some of the background of the recent relationships between Wisconsin Republicans and higher education, or the University of Wisconsin in particular.
Historically, the University of Wisconsin has always been widely understood to be our most important economic asset. It’s the best thing we’ve got going for us. You know, beer, cheese, the Packers and UW. And unfortunately, over the last several decades, we have seen that strong understanding and support for the university eroded by right wing interests that want to eradicate public education — both K-12 and higher education. And so Republican legislators in the Capitol here have embarked on a project to defund the University of Wisconsin. At the same time, they want to insert themselves into every tiny management decision — what classes are taught, what professors are hired, what students are admitted, what books are on the syllabus.
I think that shows that there’s a real disconnect between Republican politicians and Wisconsinites throughout the state, whatever their political leanings. People understand that having a strong UW System means opportunities for their kids. And it means economic prosperity for the state. The fact that Republican politicians are willing to harm the University of Wisconsin to further their political agenda and foment culture wars to excite their base, it just shows how disconnected they are from what Wisconsinites actually want and need.
Nationally, there has been a lot of discussion about the relationship between Republicans and DEI efforts. But in Wisconsin, this conflict is playing out uniquely. Can you speak on that?
I think understanding the historical context makes it easy to see that the current scuffle over DEI is just today’s excuse for their long-term animosity towards UW. If it weren’t DEI, they would be giving some other nonsense reason for why they’re cutting funds from the university at a time when we had a $7 billion surplus. DEI is today’s red meat for the ultra-MAGA base that Republicans are now exclusively playing to. For a long time it was integration, civil rights, racial equality, then for a long time it was abortion. Well, turns out abortion is actually pretty popular … As our country makes progress towards a more perfect union, Republicans have to find new things to rile up the most reactionary elements of their base because they think that’s their way to hold on to power.
Today’s DEI or critical race theory is but a buzzword that they’re using as their excuse to try to divide people and pit people against each other. It’s a very cynical approach. We just passed a bill to keep the Brewers in our state. Most if not all Fortune 500 companies and major corporations and major public institutions all have some form of diversity, equity or inclusion work that they’re doing because it is a business necessity. It’s too expensive to not have a workplace that is welcoming and where people feel like they can do their best work … For the Republican politicians, [DEI] is just what they say to excuse their financially harmful decisions.
What is important for students to know about attacks on public education, and how it might impact their experiences at UW?
It’s gonna have a huge impact — it already is today. Underfunding for decades has meant increased tuition. It means bigger class sizes, it means it takes you longer to graduate because you can’t get all the classes that you need in time. It means that you’re taught more by [teaching assistants] than by professors because there’s less job security for the faculty and because we lose our best and brightest to Stanford and University of Chicago and Harvard. There is an effect over time of UW losing its prestige and its place in the top world class research universities. Basically, the Legislature is trying to do away with tenure and attacking the Wisconsin Idea — all the things that make UW such a special asset for the state, such a special place, and things that really impact the student experience. The more we make it hard for the Universities of Wisconsin to thrive, the more students will be harmed — majors will be cut, we’re seeing staff being laid off and furloughs at campuses all around the state. We’re seeing campuses close, we’re going virtual only. And that cuts off access for people all over Wisconsin. Whatever your pathway is to higher education, we should be making it easier and more affordable and more accessible for more Wisconsinites to pursue their education post-high school and instead, we’re doing the opposite at a time when we have a record, multibillion dollar surplus.
The Badger Herald Editorial Board: UW community must take meaningful action to support Black studentsEditor’s Note: This editorial was written by Celia Hiorns, with contributions from other editorial board members. Since the recent surfacing Read…
For students who really care about this issue or want to become more involved, what can they do?
The most important thing is to remember that they are all voters. They have the ability to get out there and work for the kind of political change that they’d like to see. There’s so many different ways they can do that. Obviously voting is sort of step one, everybody should be voting in every election — and not just the big presidential one that’s going to happen next year.
Get involved with an organization that’s working on an issue you care about — whether it’s climate change or housing or economic justice — get involved and mobilize people around that issue. Email and call your legislators. I represent campus. I’m on your side when they advocate for our campus community. But talk to your friends and neighbors.
We have seen a massive outpouring of support for the Engineering building from all sorts of unlikely places — Republican CEOs that really want nothing to do with politics other than to get their tax breaks from Republicans. And they are saying we need this. So that’s the kind of mobilization effort that I think we need around our public higher education.
We need look no further than our sister states of Minnesota and Michigan, which understand that the path to prosperity today and tomorrow is through our public higher education systems, and that’s why they’re investing their surpluses in this unbelievable economic engine that we’re all lucky to have.
The Badger Herald Editorial Board serves to represent the voice of the editorial department, distinct from the newsroom and does not necessarily reflect the views of each staff member.