The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents is hiring one of Wisconsin’s most well-known politicians to the role of system president. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson will lead the UW System for at least a year, beginning in July.
The appointment comes after the search for a permanent president to replace outgoing leader Ray Cross ended in failure.
Thompson is taking over at a pivotal time. Higher education in Wisconsin and beyond is getting pummeled by financial losses and reopening challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
UW schools have already taken millions of dollars in losses, and they expect more in the upcoming year, as they ramp up safety measures to bring students back to campuses.
In a call with reporters Friday, Regent President Drew Petersen says he asked Thompson to lead during this difficult period.
“I got unified support from all of our regents members that Tommy Thompson is an excellent choice, a unifying choice to move the state and the UW System forward in a very difficult and volatile budget and operational time,” Petersen said.
Thompson was elected governor in 1986 and served four terms before joining the cabinet of President George W. Bush as secretary for Health and Human Services.
Petersen and fellow regent Karen Walsh touted Thompson’s political and health-related experience, and emphasized his ability to “work across the aisle.”
“He’s a collaborator, he’s a convener of people,” Walsh said. “We need his political skills, and most especially, we need him to work across the aisle. With the job we have ahead of us, we need all hands on deck, red or blue.”
This follows a divisive presidential search over the last several months that ended in the lone finalist removing himself from the running. UW faculty and staff objected to being excluded from the search committee. They also had concerns about the finalist, Jim Johnsen of the University of Alaska.
In response to a question about what regents learned from the failed search, Petersen defended the “transparency” of the process but said “good leaders learn from mistakes.”
“And going forward, I think there will be discussions from the board of regents on having a committee that is expansive,” Petersen said. “And I think we’ll be open to that. And we’ll have time to work on that.”
The regents won’t restart the presidential search process for at least a year.
Jeffrey Sommers, a UWM faculty member, says he’s not necessarily optimistic about Thompson’s appointment. But, “I am feeling less panicked,” Sommers said.
Sommers teaches political economy and public policy, and he’s part of an organization that advocates for faculty rights. He says UW faculty and staff have been feeling demoralized about system leadership for years. But he’s glad that Thompson seems to hold the UW in high regard.
“What it does suggest is that we’re going to have somebody who will most likely act slower, more deliberately, and with at least the possibility of faculty input,” Sommers said. “None of this guaranteed, but at least the possibility seems to be there.”
In a joint statement, faculty representatives from all 13 UW universities said: "We...welcome the appointment of Governor Tommy Thompson as the Interim President of the University of Wisconsin System. Governor Thompson has a long track record of support for public higher education in Wisconsin, both in and out of his roles in government."
Statements of support also poured in Friday from some UW institution chancellors and many lawmakers.
Thompson declined an interview for this story. It remains to be seen what his vision for the system will be.
“The University of Wisconsin System is the state’s most valuable asset, and I will be its biggest advocate and its toughest evaluator,” Thompson said in the statement announcing his appointment. “No other institution in the state can do more to improve lives, communities, and Wisconsin’s economy.”
Outgoing president Ray Cross proposed a controversial “blueprint” for the future that calls for program cuts at four-year universities, excluding Madison and Milwaukee.
Regent Karen Walsh says that blueprint will be one factor for Thompson and the regents to consider.
“It’s another piece of input, just like Tommy’s visits to campus will be, his work with chancellors and their staff,” Walsh said. “So we’re not hiring Tommy to come in and implement the blueprint. We’re hiring him to come in and do the best thing possible for the UW System to position us for the future.”
Thompson will take over as president on July 1. According to officials, he requested to be paid the minimum salary for the position, which is about $490,000.
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