One of my friends came up with bold idea for getting the University of Wisconsin System out of its current leadership mess. Appoint former Gov. Tommy Thompson as system president for one year.
If ever there were a time when the university needed a firm hand on the wheel, this is it. The country and Wisconsin are facing a triple whammy: the virus pandemic, an economic collapse of historic proportions, and social unrest that is sweeping the nation. As a result, the university is also in a tailspin.
All this is happening while the leadership of the system is in disarray. President Ray Cross is retiring and has one foot out the door. Lame ducks struggle to be effective. The six-month search for a new president ended in shambles when the one candidate to survive the process of elimination withdrew Friday. No timeline for a new search has been announced.
We have a vacuum at the top. And it will take the better part of a year to search out a new president. That impasse calls for an interim president.
The first thought would be to appoint an interim from the corps of 13 UW university chancellors. There are some very competent leaders there. The drawback is that they are all consumed with keeping their own campuses viable amidst the swirling dynamics in the country.
Then who? Some retired CEOs like Gale Klappa of WE Energies, Nic Turkal of Aurora Health or Tom Hefty of Blue Cross and Chairman of Artisan Funds come to mind. They have led huge organizations successfully and are all politically savvy. Each could do the job.
But Tommy would draw more support. He is a household name in Wisconsin, the only governor to be elected four times – by good margins. Other positive attributes:
o He always worked across the political aisle. He is instinctively bipartisan.
o He is a friend of UW. The sharp budget cuts to the university system came after he left office.
o He holds a doctor of law degree from UW – Madison.
o He served as presidential cabinet member, so knows the ropes for finding federal money.
o He went on to become a successful investor and corporate board member, including some young technology companies, He knows the innovation world that is at the center of the university’s forward agenda.
o He has an executive persona, respectful but demanding and tough in the right ways.
o He comes from out state, so would be even-handed in making the major moves have to be made or the 26 campuses in the next 12 months. He would not be Madison-centric like UWS is today.
o He is an uber-Wisconsin cheerleader at a time when we need one badly.
In short, he would be a smart choice to get the university through the next 12 months.
As interim, working with the regents, he could make finding a permanent president a high priority. Like me, he knows he’s a little long in the tooth and is not looking for a permanent gig.