Is UW-Madison above scrutiny in the race to equity?

Introduction by Sam Owens: All things being equal, the prestige of a UW-Madison degree can be a passport to opportunities in Wisconsin. However, when students are subjected to academic discrimination, they often experience competitive disadvantages and limited opportunities, relative to their more-favored peers.

As of late, UW-Madison seems even more emboldened to openly discriminate against students who take ideologically unpopular stances against the UW-Madison status quo. Just ask the College Republicans. We all need to stop and truly appreciate the chilling effect that UW-Madison’s behavior is having on intellectual freedom and free speech in Wisconsin.

My spouse (and recent law school graduate) S.L. Owens has taken a bold stance against academic discrimination. S.L.’s personal experience has led me to advocate for the Legislature to divest UW-Madison of its self-policing authority regarding student discrimination complaints.

This is S.L.’s story, in her own words:

Wisconsin is ranked the worst state in America for black people. Two years ago, Dane County was named the worst county for black families. Now institutions across the state are under scrutiny because of Wisconsin’s racial disparities.

Yet UW-Madison flies below the radar. Why? UW-Madison tightly controls its image. The university’s image is crafted by the Division of Diversity, Equity, & Educational Achievement. Nestled in this agency is the Office for Equity and Diversity. The OED is UW’s sole investigator of discrimination. As such, the OED is UW’s most powerful weapon for quietly rebuffing complaints of racism, sexism, or other biases.

To start, I am a diehard Badger. A national scholarship program saw my college potential. I arrived in Madison in the fall of 2004. Madison was sobering up from the bad press it received after the UW Photoshopped a black student into a brochure. Apparently, the university wanted to look more diverse. My second tour of UW-Madison started in the fall of 2011. I had won a fellowship for Legal Education Opportunities. The summer before, racial tension simmered over an incident involving a “lynched Spider-Man” on historic Langdon Street.

From this view, I share my story.

Lacking personal safety on campus

The first hate crimes I experienced occurred at UW-Madison.

We were humiliated and covered in slime heading to College Library. A gang of white students swerved around us in a sedan. They threw mayonnaise from their car and screamed racial slurs. The dorms presented safety issues too. For example, blackface costumes regularly appear at Halloween. Hate speech and vandalism continue to pop up around Madison.

Of course, this is not the popular image of UW-Madison. But this was my Wisconsin experience.

Strangers have pulled my hair from my head.

For a black woman on campus, unsolicited touching is not uncommon. Classmates witnessed me experience it in a law class. Notably, the aggressor quickly apologized. In general, minority students are attuned to these micro-aggressions. However, my majority classmates were appalled at what they witnessed in lecture.

Fighting for respect in law school

Law professors humiliated me.

In law school, a professor chastised me for being unmotivated. This professor is known for dog-whistle racial language. Meaning, the professor openly stereotypes black law students. The professor knew I had just returned to school after having surgery, although I had not disclosed that I nearly died from my illness. I sat in pain with fresh stitches as my professor berated me with stereotypes.

Another professor scolded me for correcting them on how to pronounce my name. According to the professor, I should blame my mother. The professor then admonished me against correcting judges or partners in law firms. Eventually, I adopted a short professional moniker. Turns out, a gender-neutral and racially ambiguous name helps my legal career. Unfortunately, my professor tried to belittle me in order to teach me this lesson.

Besides unpleasant professors, I experienced routine attacks on my value. Law Review and Moot Court are elite, invitation-only student organizations. Firms extensively recruit from them. In my class, I was the only black student invited to join Law Review. And I was one of two invited by Moot Court. Groundless challenges to my entry cost me time, energy, and morale.



I was denied achievements given to my peers.

During my last year of law school, I served as diversity chair of Law Review, and our committee worked to improve the organization’s diversity. We abandoned discriminatory policies. Institutional change came with pushback. Not everyone was happy about challenges to their authority. Even so, I was surprised to learn the law school excluded me from an award given to each of my peers for their “service to the Law Review.”

When I inquired about why I was excluded, the law school said I was not qualified. Administrators explained they never give it to the diversity chair. The description of the award read for “Law Review staff” for their “scholarship and service to the Law Review.” I published an article and served in a senior leadership role. I am disappointed that my law school refused to recognize my scholarship and service to the Law Review. Only one activity differentiated me from my peers. I openly advocated against the Law Review’s discriminatory policies and barriers to entry.

UW-Madison self-polices its own discrimination

Disparities are happening all over Dane County. Affected students have no protection. Students must rely on UW to self-police. Wisconsin enacted a statute prohibiting students from receiving judicial review. Unlike UW employees, students have no cover when UW-Madison decides in favor of itself through the OED. “Nothing to see over here” is the OED’s typical response.

In what looks like a conflict of interest, the OED and the investigated party seem to rely on UW attorneys. Close relationships curb legitimate inquiry. Based on my experience, the OED appears to serve two functions: squash discrimination complaints and collect information for UW attorneys.

Therefore, the OED is unlikely to find probable cause that triggers a deeper investigation into UW-Madison. The result is a glaring disservice to improving student life.

Institutional bias requires legislative intervention

The UW is unable to self-police.

Legislative intervention is required to dismantle UW’s institutional bias. Students need access to Wisconsin courts. Diversity discussions, plans, and lectures will not cure the racism and bias inflicted on students. Systematic change is a doomed intention until Wisconsin’s laws and policies match equity rhetoric.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.