Thompson’s call for cooperation and collaboration must be heard.
As Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor from 1987 to 2001, Tommy Thompson was a strong advocate for the University of Wisconsin system and believed in its ability to serve not only as a world-class educational institution, but also engine of economic growth.
After all, Thompson has a deep connection to the system, earning his bachelor’s degree (1963) and law degree (1966) on the Madison campus. He even made his political debut there, as president of the Madison Young Republicans.
So there was serendipitous in events when an opening for the post of President of the UW System coincided with Thompson’s availability for the post. He was appointed on an interim basis in mid-2020 and estimates he still has around six months to run the system.
But Thompson, who turns 80 later this year, remains vigorous and has a long history suggesting he’s not interested in being a simple goalie. In fact, he challenges Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled legislature to come together in a joint effort with the UW to reinvent the role and structure of public higher education.
“We keep doing the same things and we’re going to end up with the same result,” Thompson said in an interview with WisPolitics. “No more (student) debts, no more buildings, no more classrooms. It’s time for us to be controversial and take a look. What is in the best interests of the student? “
And, moreover, which is in the best interest of the state and its place in an economy increasingly tied to technology and innovation.
Thompson says the UW system is lagging behind other states and needs to catch up to compete. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, he calls on the governor and lawmakers to stop fighting long enough to create a task force with a mission to chart the future of UW, with the goal of harnessing the intellectual muscle of the system to move Wisconsin forward.
In a sense, Thompson’s challenge highlights the differences between the Republican Party of his day and the most right-wing leaders of today. Higher education is often viewed from a suspect angle by the modern right, accused of indoctrinating students with a leftist ideology. Among the results of this conflict are tightening budget restrictions for the UW system and frequent feuds between lawmakers and university officials.
In our view, there is more than little truth in the accusation that higher education has become too comfortably leftist and often too hostile to conservatism.
Yet the goal should not be a battle of ideologies, but rather a system guided by academic research and inquiry where politics – left or right – is an insignificant factor.
Knowledge is power and prosperity. Education is the way to get there.
Tommy Thompson, like an old workhorse not yet ready for grazing, challenges political opponents to put down their knives and give the venerable UW System a Wisconsin-style mission in this rapidly evolving century. He points out that the old way of doing things at UW, coupled with unproductive political wrangling, can only lead to further erosion of Wisconsin’s place in the competitive fields of economics and higher education. .
He is right. The UW system – and the people who pay the taxes to support it – need a better plan.
Evers and the legislature should join us.