Despite pressure from business leaders across the state, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos this week stood by the Legislature’s decision to freeze state funding for a new engineering building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Voss, R-Rochester, tied funding for the engineering building to what he called staffing “bloat” at Wisconsin universities, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programming.
“We would love to be able to find a way to get to yes by having the university work with us to control the number of positions they’ve added,” he said, noting that UW-Madison has added 1,700 positions since 2017 yrs.” And we still have the challenge of all the division, indoctrination, and exclusion that goes on with DEI programs.”
Voss stuck to his position despite lobbying from Wisconsin business leaders who say expanding the flagship university’s engineering program is critical to developing the state’s workforce. The university considered its plan to replace the aging engineering building to allow for program expansion a top priority during the budget process, but GOP lawmakers refused to fund the project.
The university is fighting back, enlisting the help of employers, manufacturers and business lobby groups. Earlier this month, more than 40 business leaders from across the state signed a letter to state lawmakers advocating for the building, saying the project will allow the university to “serve more Wisconsin students and employers.”
The Wisconsin Alumni Association funded the ad campaign, which focuses on the need for more engineers in Wisconsin and the College of Engineering’s impact on the state. The campaign comes as Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature and universities continue to fight for diversity programs.
On Tuesday, Voss dismissed the idea that expanding the program would allow more engineering students to stay in Wisconsin. He said students not accepted into the Madison College of Engineering can participate in programs at UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee.
But Charlie Hoslett, vice chancellor for university relations at UW-Madison, said UW-Madison students are more likely to transfer to another Big 10 school — such as the University of Illinois or Purdue University — than to another school. in the UW system. He said one of the reasons these students choose Madison is for the “Big 10 experiences.”
Hoslett also said funding for the engineering building “has nothing to do with” systemic discussions with the Legislature about staffing or DEI. Rather, he said it was about increasing the engineering workforce in the state.
“The vast majority of legislators we’ve talked to over the past four years understand the need for the building and support providing the funding,” he said. “There are other conversations going on that complicate that, but our message to them is that the engineering building is clearly needed.”
But the political perspective of the project is unclear. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently asked all 132 state legislators in both houses of the Legislature for their views on funding the new engineering building. According to the newspaper, 43 supported the project, four opposed, six said they might support it, and 69 did not respond. Nine declined to comment and one was unclear.
UW-Madison says the construction project currently has a total project cost of $347 million, with the university committed to raising $150 million in private donations and grants. He is asking the state Legislature to fund the remaining $197 million.
The university says delaying the project for the next state budget cycle would push total costs to roughly $400 million and jeopardize more than $100 million the school has already raised from donors.
The project will replace an aging building with a larger facility that will allow the school to enroll approximately 1,000 more engineering students, Hoslett said.
Delays in the new building are affecting enrollment
Last year, Hoslett said the university had more than 8,400 applicants for undergraduate degrees in the College of Engineering, but was only able to accept approximately 1,200.
“There’s a huge number of students who want to become engineers, want to stay in school here in the state of Wisconsin, and we don’t have the capacity to accommodate them,” he said. “This building, which will be partially funded by the state and partially funded by donations and grants from the university, is intended to help address at least some of that need.”
Data from the State Department of Workforce Development projects that occupations in architecture and engineering will grow about 9.5 percent from 2020 to 2030. From 2022 to 2032, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment in architecture and engineering nationally is expected to “grow faster than the average for all occupations.”
“There is a very high level of demand for students with engineering degrees, both state and federal,” Hoslett said. “If we want to help the state grow its economy, if we want to help these businesses grow, we need more engineering professionals to graduate from Madison and go to work in the state.”
For every UW-Madison engineering graduate, Hoslet said there are, on average, more than three companies trying to hire them.
One of those companies is Oshkosh Corp., which makes specialty trucks and military vehicles. The company’s CEO, John Pfeifer, signed the letter to the Legislature and told WPR that UW-Madison is the manufacturer’s school of engineering talent.
“In my opinion, this is the best engineering recruiting school in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “We also know that if someone doesn’t get into Madison and therefore goes out of state to another graduate engineering school, they’re much less likely to come back to the state of Wisconsin than if they had gone to Madison.”
Editor’s note: WPR reporter Anja Van Wagtendonk contributed to this story. WPR staff are UW-Madison employees.