Assembly Majority Leader Doesn’t Support Suing UW System To Block COVID-19 Safety Rules

A high ranking Republican member of the state Assembly says he doesn’t support suing the University of Wisconsin System for not complying with a demand that COVID-19 safety restrictions be submitted to lawmakers for approval. Faculty members at UW campuses say that’s a good sign. 

On Thursday, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, tweeted praise for UW System interim President Tommy Thompson for refusing a demand from Republican state Sen. Stephen Nass to submit campus COVID-19 safety measures like mask requirements to the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules. 

On July 28, Nass announced he was planning to block UW System schools from requiring masks and weekly testing for students that aren’t vaccinated against the virus. 

“The Legislature should not drag its feet in utilizing the powers we have to prevent state agencies from abusing the statutory and constitutional rights of citizens as was done in 2020,” Nass said.

Nass’ statement also accused some UW System chancellors of “taking advantage of the Delta-variant hysteria to enact excessive COVID-19 mandates.”

The joint committee, which is controlled by Republicans and co-chaired by Nass, voted along party lines to require the system to submit safety requirements that could bar students, employees and visitors from university campuses by Aug. 2. 

This week, Thompson, told reporters the UW System would not comply with the order from Nass and the committee. 

“I’m not abdicating my responsibility and I will contest it aggressively, even though I don’t want to pick a fight with the Legislature,” said Thompson. “I am going to stand my ground and we’re going to fight, if we have to, to make sure that we maintain our colleges and make sure that our students are able to get the best education possible in as safe and healthy a way as possible.”

In turn, Nass said he would request state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu to take legal action “to force the UW System to comply with state law.” 

While Vos and LeMahieu haven’t commented on whether they would file a lawsuit against the state’s public universities on behalf of Nass and the joint committee, Steineke said on Thursday it would be a bad idea. 

“As students look to return to class for the first time in months, a lawsuit from the legislature would only add more confusion during an already stressful time,” Steineke wrote in his tweet.

This drew a direct and sharp reply from Nass’ chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen, who said it was a “Great example of why the GOP base is so frustrated with certain elected GOP members.” 

“Says he is not ok with Covid vaccine mandate, but won’t go to court to stop UW System,” tweeted Mikalsen. “He is ok with unvaccinated students being forced to have a stick shoved up the nose every week to test.”

Mikalsen has previously told WPR the directive to the UW System was about stopping UW System campuses from mandating COVID-19 vaccines, though Thompson has repeatedly said there won’t be vaccine mandates within the UW.

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Several private colleges in Wisconsin including Marquette University, Beloit College and Alverno College have announced vaccine mandates.

For faculty members, the contention between Republican state lawmakers and the UW System is nothing new. UW-Platteville professor Chuck Cornett chairs the University of Wisconsin Faculty Representatives to the UW Board of Regents. He told WPR the battle between Nass and the UW didn’t cause much alarm once Thompson refused to comply. 

“I think we had good faith in our chancellors to carry through, especially after President Thompson’s statement,” said Cornett. “And I think we were just patient. I don’t think there was a lot of angst personally.”

Cornett also credited Thompson for putting UW institutions, students and employees ahead of political considerations. 

UW-Milwaukee professor Kathy Dolan said it was obvious that Nass was hoping to force the UW System to start fall classes with fewer COVID-19 protections in place. She speculates Nass may have hoped for such a lawsuit to be immediately taken up by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which struck down a statewide mask mandate in March of 2020.  

Dolan said seeing Steineke, the second highest ranking Republican in the Assembly, push back against Nass’ call for a lawsuit was heartening. 

“I think that statement was a positive thing because a high ranking Republican coming out publicly to say no (suggests) there’s not a unanimity in the caucus to proceed with this,” said Dolan. 

Dolan said she would prefer the UW System to take COVID-19 requirements a step further and institute a vaccine mandate for all campuses. 

“As somebody who has to go next week into a classroom with 100 people, if I use the state benchmarks for how many people in the 18 to 25 year old category have been vaccinated, I’m looking at a room of 50 people who aren’t vaccinated out of 100,” said Dolan. “Does that make me feel great? No. Would I be doing it without a mask mandate? Unlikely.”

UW-River Falls professor and faculty senate chair, Doug Margolis said he’s glad Thompson stood his ground because it makes it more likely classes won’t be pushed online due to outbreaks on campus.

Just after the start of the fall semester in 2020, UW-River Falls became the third UW campus to pause in-person classes for two weeks due to a surge in new COVID-19 cases among students. 

Margolis said administrators at UW campuses are trying to follow what public health officials in their various counties are recommending as COVID-19 cases surge once again in Wisconsin. He said trying to submit any needed changes from 26 campuses around the state for Republican approval would delay response to a fast moving pandemic. 

“It’s going to take way too long to get any kind of real response,” said Margolis. “It just seems ridiculous.”

Margolis also supports the idea of vaccine mandates and said having them on campuses could mean less stringent mask requirements, which would make it easier for in-person teaching and learning.