Gov. Tony Evers signs into law new engineering building for UW-Madison

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is getting a new engineering building, a widely supported project ensnared for months in a broader political negotiation over campus diversity programs.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday signed into law nearly $700 million for UW System building projects, including $200 million in state money for a $347 million engineering building. He also signed two bills changing the way the Minnesota-Wisconsin tuition reciprocity agreement is managed, which will send more money to UW campuses instead of funneling into the state’s general fund.

The bills were the final pieces in a sweeping agreement struck between the UW System and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which held up the engineering building, employee pay raises and other UW priorities.

“I don’t think any of us would want the budget process to regularly look the way it did this year,” Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This was a long haul and hard process, though at the end of the day, I think we got to a terrific place. I really hope that this helps us do a reset that helps us engage differently and better, earlier in the process in a bipartisan way.”

A crowded hallway of students studying Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, inside of Engineering Hall in Madison, Wis.A crowded hallway of students studying Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, inside of Engineering Hall in Madison, Wis.

A crowded hallway of students studying Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, inside of Engineering Hall in Madison, Wis.

UW-Madison engineering building became bargaining chip

The building was the highest-ranked capital priority across the UW System this budget session. It became a bargaining chip when Republicans refused to fund it in the state budget passed last summer.

Their denial came despite broad support from the business community. Lawmakers initially cited cost, not diversity programs, for their rejection even though they approved lower-ranked priority projects.

Mnookin and UW System President Jay Rothman came to an agreement last December that would get UW-Madison its engineering building, as well as $79 million for dorm renovations at UW-Madison, $79 million for academic building renovations at UW-Whitewater, and nearly $200 million for utility and demolition projects across the UW System.

In exchange, about 43 diversity positions across the UW System will be restructured to serve all students instead of focusing on specific backgrounds. Mnookin said UW-Madison will restructure a little more than 20 positions. Affected individuals have not yet been notified but the university is working to hold up its end of the bargain, she said.

Gov. Evers weighs in on Legislature’s extended negotiation with UW

Evers said the UW Board of Regents were put into a difficult position, not wanting to lose any of the donations UW-Madison had already secured to fund its $150 million portion of the engineering project.

“I thought it was a bad negotiation session, but I’m not going to hold anybody accountable for it,” Evers said when asked if the UW Board of Regents should have agreed to the deal or waited on the results of a lawsuit he had filed. “It’s done. They got the raises, they got the building.”

Both Rothman and Mnookin have defended the agreement, saying it doesn’t bend their commitment to diversity.

Others, including some regents, opposed the compromise. They feared it may set a dangerous precedent for future budgets. They also said it sends the wrong message to students of color and others who may struggle to find a sense of belonging on campus.

The UW Regents initially rejected the deal in a surprise 9-8 vote. The board reversed course a few days later.

“It was a mess,” Evers said of the negotiation. “It didn’t have to be a mess, but we got through it.”

How are UW building projects funded?

The state’s budget surplus will be tapped to fund most of the other building projects, which Evers also signed into law Wednesday. About $110 million will come from taxpayer-supported borrowing.

UW-Madison is still working to reach its $150 million fundraising goal, Mnookin said. More than $100 million has been raised so far.

Building will grow engineering enrollment, expand research

The UW-Madison College of Engineering receives some 8,000 applicants annually but only has the space and teaching resources to accept about 1,200. The new building will allow the state flagship to graduate at least 1,000 more undergraduate engineers annually, as well as hire more faculty and expand research.

Construction is anticipated to begin in 2025, with an opening date targeted for 2028.

Reflecting on one of UW’s most contentious and extended budget sessions in recent memory, Mnookin said the end result − with bipartisan and near unanimous support for the project − was noteworthy.

“That degree of end-of-the-day consensus and agreement is a pretty rare thing and worth celebrating,” she said. “It gives me hope for our collective futures.”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Gov. Evers signs into law new engineering building for UW-Madison

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