Nearly two months after Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill banning critical race theory in public schools, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are attacking the academic framework again — this time at the university level.
In a letter sent to University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank Tuesday, Vos brought attention to a mandatory graduate course on sexual violence, saying the curriculum “instills the university’s negative opinion of white students and the idea that students should feel guilty simply because of their race.”
This August, UW-Madison began requiring all newly admitted graduate and professional students to complete the online course on “Preventing and Responding to Sexual and Relationship Violence.”
On its website, University Health Services explains that students are required to complete the class, and shares statistics on sexual harassment on campus.
"Over half of female graduate and professional students, one-third of male graduate and professional students, and almost 70% of trans and gender non-conforming graduate and professional students reported experiencing sexual harassment during their time at UW–Madison," the description reads.
In his letter, Vos writes that "the course states Critical Race Theory and Critical Race Feminism can help students understand privilege better." He claimed that the class allows University Health Services “to push their own political beliefs and agenda” onto students.
Critical race theory is an academic idea analyzing racism within past and present institutions. Across the country, Republican-led legislatures have pushed to ban its teaching in classrooms, though critics have said CRT is a "red herring" term intended to quash conversations about inequities.
“Students are not only required to take this course and pass with a 100% score in order to enroll in classes but they are also required to agree that whiteness means privilege,” he said in the letter. Vos asked Blank for an explanation as to why the course is mandatory for graduate and professional students to enroll in classes.
Kleefisch, a Republican running for governor in 2022, also criticized the course. "So, what's so bad about the curriculum?" she asked in a video posted to Twitter by Accuracy in Media, a conservative news outlet. "Take a look at this slide that says critical race theory and critical race feminism."
Transitioning to a clip of the class, Kleefisch pointed out one of its lessons: "Privilege feeds institutional power, and combined with prejudice, creates harmful systems. Using these systems, people in dominant groups use their institutional power to control people in marginalized groups."
Kleefisch also called attention to the course's list of groups who benefit from privilege. The webinar labeled white, male, non-disabled, cisgender and heterosexual people as among some of those who benefit from privilege based on social identity — a categorization widely accepted by academic institutions.
University spokesman John Lucas clarified in an email that “the training in question is a prevention education webinar” — not a training on critical race theory, as Vos and Kleefisch asserted in their statements.
John Walker, co-president of UW-Madison’s Teaching Assistants Association, said he didn’t recall race being a large topic when he participated in the online course.
“It’s mostly about sexual and relationship violence and how to report and respond to it,” he said. “It most definitely doesn’t rely on CRT in any way more than introducing it as a concept and lens.”
Lucas added that the webinar was initially developed in response to a 2016 American Association of Universities (AAU) survey indicating graduate students were not well-informed about campus policies and resources for sexual misconduct.
Designed to promote the health and safety of the campus community, the program increases students’ understanding of dynamics around sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence, according to the University Health Services website. The class also focuses on “safe and effective prevention strategies,” as well as reporting options, victim rights and resources for support, in an effort “to address violence in our campus community and contribute to safe and supportive learning environments.”
“Offering a webinar like this is an important part of the university’s sexual violence prevention efforts,” Lucas said.
In his letter, Vos said he viewed the webinar as a “blatant attempt by UW-Madison to force students to agree with one set of beliefs.”
“Our university system is a place to encourage and cultivate diversity of thought,” he said. “Instead, it appears to have turned its back on the values of intellectual diversity and the discussion of differing viewpoints.
“The students of our state deserve the opportunity to learn about different viewpoints and develop their own beliefs without being required to agree with one, narrow set of beliefs that the university tries to bestow upon them before they are allowed to register for courses,” he said.
The two-hour webinar, however, only has “a brief reference to critical race theory and its influence on feminism,” Lucas said. “The concepts mentioned are supported by academic research, as noted in the citations.”
According to Lucas, the university will continue to keep tabs on the webinar, “as we do with all of our programs,” and make changes if necessary. He encouraged graduate and professional students to share any questions or concerns about the program or their participation with University Health Services Violence Prevention.